Did coronavirus escape from a lab during ‘risky’ research?

While many experts believe that the COVID-19 coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans in the close, cruel confines of one of Wuhan's infamous wet markets, a more sinister theory is gaining credence.

Namely, that the coronavirus made its escape from a Chinese research facility in Wuhan that was conducting "risky" research into bat coronaviruses in an attempt to prevent another SARS-like pandemic.

According to diplomatic cables seen by the Washington Post's Josh Rogin, two years before the outbreak which has killed more than 125,000 people around the world and sent the economy into a tailspin, US science diplomats visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology - and they did not like what they saw.

Many experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced back to wet markets in Wuhan. Picture: Supplied
Many experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced back to wet markets in Wuhan. Picture: Supplied

Rogin reports that one cable, dated 19 January 2018 and marked "Sensitive but Unclassified", stated that "During interactions with scientists at the (Wuhan Institute of Virology) laboratory (the delegation) noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory".

The cable continued: "Most importantly the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus.

"This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases.

"From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention."

An electron microscope image shows the Novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the virus causes COVID-19. Picture: AP.
An electron microscope image shows the Novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the virus causes COVID-19. Picture: AP.

While Chinese researchers had been open about their work - and had been receiving assistance from various US academic organisations - the cables suggest that the labs were playing with fire.

Experts quoted by the Washington Post suggested that the cable was a "warning shot" that was "begging people to pay attention to what was going on".

Rogin reports that the cables have recently resurfaced as the White House debates the origins of the coronavirus and what to do about it.

 

While there is no suggestion that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered as a bioweapon, experts instead say that lax protocols may have resulted in the virus accidentally breaking out into the general population.

Supporters of this theory point to a number of data points, including the fact that bats are not sold at markets in Wuhan and that in mid-February Chinese president Xi Jinping announced urgent new controls on such biological research.

"The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab's research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected", Xioao Qiang of the University of California at Berkeley told the Washington Post.

So long as the Chinese government continues to obscure the origins of COVID-19 and crack down on research attempting to figure it out, the world will be left to speculate.

Originally published as Did coronavirus escape from a lab during 'risky' research?


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