Where does COVID-19 come from? The pressure is on to find the answer

A member of the medical staff treats a patient infected with COVID-19 at a hospital in Wuhan, China, on February 22, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – With tensions between the United States and China deepenthe question of how and where the coronavirus originated remains an intense point of contention, especially as the “laboratory escape” hypothesis gains traction.

There is a consensus that the pandemic originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, maybe as early as September 2019. But did it start at a wildlife market, jumping from a bat or other animal host to humans? Or did the coronavirus emanate from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a result of an accident?

More than three years since the start of the pandemic, these fundamental questions remain unanswered. However, the heated, partisan debates about masks and vaccines have been eclipsed by the question of how the virus first entered the human population.

“The spell is broken”

Laboratory technicians wearing personal protective equipment stand at testing stations.

Laboratory technicians work on samples to be tested for the coronavirus at a COVID-19 testing facility in Wuhan in August 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps no one has done more to popularize the notion of a laboratory leak than comedian Jon Stewartwho made the case in a viral appearance on Stephen Colbert’s talk show in 2021.

“Science has helped in many ways to alleviate the suffering of this pandemic, which was most likely caused by science,” Stewart said in an extended riff on how he could not accept as mere coincidence that the coronavirus originated in a city that was also home. to a laboratory dedicated to studying coronaviruses.

“The reaction was quick, immediate and quite strong,” Stewart pondered last month. Since then, however, more and more experts have come to his view.

Recently, the Department of Energy is called that Division Z told the Biden administration that it had become more certain that the virus originated in a laboratory. Other intelligence agencies continue to favor zoonosis – the relatively common The process of transferring a virus from an animal population to humans – but because most of the evidence on which these assessments were made remains classified, it has been difficult to analyze on what grounds the agencies are not do not agree.

Initially, many scientists and public health experts argued that the endorsement of anything other than the zoonotic hypothesis would fuel conspiracy theories and anti-Asian sentiment, which was on the rise.

But conclusive proof of a jump from animals to humans never materialized, while circumstantial evidence for a laboratory leak was mounted.

“We’re getting more popular awareness of the validity of the laboratory origin theory, and that’s getting more scientists to speak up and come out of the woodwork,” he says. Alex Washburnean independent mathematical epidemiologist and pathogen spillover researcher who has worked at Duke and Princeton universities.

Long gone are the days when lab leak proponents were lumped in with anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. “The spell is broken,” Washburne told Yahoo News.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill you want classified intelligence on the issue, but it is not clear that the Biden administration will comply.

“His Hand in the Cookie Jar”

Dr.  AS Anthony Fauci.

Dr. Anthony Fauci at an event in December 2022 urging Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

When Republicans took over the House of Representatives after last November’s midterm elections, the chamber’s new leaders promised to question top public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci — until recently chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top pandemic advisor for both. Presidents Biden and Donald Trump – and Dr. Francis Collins, who will retire in 2021 from the leadership of the National Institutes of Health.

Fauci has been at the center of both conspiracy theories (some of which have resulted in threats against him and his family) and legitimate questions about whether federal regulators have performed sufficient oversight of subsidies to the ‘Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Researchers have conducted gain-of-function studies, which make a virus either more transmissible or more harmful to anticipate how it might behave in a human population. There is some genetic evidence – persuasive but circumstantial – to suggest that such research could have led to the inadvertent release of the pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2.

This evidence, the witnesses said on Wednesday at the first hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, consists of a sequence of four amino acids that make up what is known as a furin cleavage site, a unique signature that some researchers believe that it is incontrovertible proof of human intervention. (Others say that furin cleavage sites are not genetically engineered.)

Fauci’s name was frequently invoked during the hearing. Earlier this week, Republican members of the committee released the content of email exchanges that described how Fauci and Collins. allegedly discounted the hypothesis of laboratory leakage in the early stages of the pandemic. They did so, the Republicans claimed, without any evidence in favor of the zoonotic model.

“Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who heads the House Oversight Committee, said at the hearing of the on Wednesday, suggesting that they were directly responsible for the work carried out in Wuhan. .

“They caught the supercharge virus in an uninsured Chinese lab,” he said. In fact, there is no evidence that Fauci or Collins were directly involved in any research conducted in Wuhan. It is more likely that NIH regulators did not press Chinese colleagues hard enough on what kind of research they were conducting, as a government report published earlier this year suggests.

Witnesses point to the lab’s escape

An aerial view of groups of large buildings on landscaped grounds surrounded by mountains.

A laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Fauci has yet to testify before the GOP’s coronavirus panel, but he is a veteran of Capitol Hill hearings and said he will not shy away from defending his record. In a hearing in 2021, he argued in favor of cooperation with Chinese researchers, including gain-of-function experiments.

“You gotta go where the action is,” he said at the time.

The most significant witness on Wednesday was Dr. Robert Redfield, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abandoned by then-President Donald Trump and never fully trusted by Democrats, was an early proponent of the laboratory leak narrative.

He used his testimony as a sort of vindication, while doing little to hide his abiding dislike for Fauci.

“Based on my initial analysis of the data, I came to believe and still believe today that it indicates that COVID-19 is more likely the result of an accidental laboratory leak than the result of a natural spillover event,” Redfield said.

A similar assessment was offered by the witness Jamie Metzlwho signaled on more than one occasion that he was a pro-science Democrat, having served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

“There is no ‘smoking gun’ that proves a laboratory origin hypothesis, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that, at the very least, is hot to the touch,” Metzl said.

The questions that China does not answer

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Director of the National Security Agency Gen.  Paul Nakasone and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

From right, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone and FBI Director Christopher Wray testified at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Between fears of an invasion of Taiwan and the recent downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon that had been floating for days over the continental United States, Sino-American relations appear to be at a low point.

And as evidence for a laboratory leak continues to grow, pressure is building on China to open up to external probes on the problem. So far, researchers have not found a convincing animal candidate for the zoonotic hypothesis. Except for a single WHO visit, they have not allowed Western investigators unrestricted access to Wuhan’s virology laboratory.

“China has not fully cooperated, and that is a key critical gap that will help us understand what exactly happened,” Avril Haines, the nation’s director of intelligence, he said in a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

Officials at the World Health Organization are also exasperated, having to face both criticism of Chinese influence over the agency and intransigence from Beijing, which has gone so far as to say that the virus may be originated in an American biological weapons facility.

Understanding how the pandemic started was “critical,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the agency’s response to the coronavirus, he said in a briefing on Wednesday. Although he called for more transparency from China, Van Kerkhove also echoed demands from Capitol Hill to review classified evidence now available only to US intelligence agencies.

“This is not a game,” he said.

Democrats responded

Rep. Jamie Raskin.

Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., at a hearing Wednesday of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Unlike the inquiry into the January 6, 2021, riot in the US Capitol, the inquiry into how the pandemic started has so far been a bipartisan affair. But while Republicans wanted to focus strictly on where the coronavirus originated, Democrats were more interested in how the next pandemic could be stopped.

They also argued that the focus on China was a means to absolve Trump of an inattentive and erratic response that led to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths during the beginning of the crisis.

“Whatever the origins of COVID-19, be it bats or bureaucrats,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said“no one found has ever exonerated or rehabilitated Donald Trump for his lethal recklessness in mishandling the crisis.”

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