Where does Corona come from? That question has kept the world busy for about a year and a half, and there is still no definitive answer. Was it a human who contracted the virus through an animal infected by a bat, or did the virus escape from a lab in Wuhan? These are the most frequently mentioned possibilities, although researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) considered laboratory theory unlikely.
Yet this theory is now taken more seriously. US President Biden announced in a statement that he had ordered his intelligence services to produce a new report within 90 days. The Chinese reacted to that. Four questions about lab theory:
1. Why is there discussion again?
The renewed attention to lab theory has several reasons. American media reported last weekend about an intelligence report. It states that three employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the potential source of lab breakage, had corona-related complaints as early as November 2019, even before the first corona case in Wuhan was officially diagnosed. It was already known that employees of the lab had such signs of disease at that time. New was the information that they also ended up in the hospital.
A week earlier, eighteen scientists called in the renowned scientific journal Science to investigate lab theory as a serious possibility “without emotions, and scientifically substantiated”. They pointed out that in the WHO report only four of the 313 pages concerned the possibility that the virus escaped from the lab.
New information is not really there, but the political situation has changed, note among others The New York Times and the BBC. The fact that it was President Trump who spread the lab theory in 2020, after which conspiracy thinkers took it, could have caused many media and scientists not to look at it seriously enough.
2. Surely research on the origin of the coronavirus had already been done?
At the beginning of this year, the WHO sent a team to Wuhan, including the Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans. They came back with possible theories of origin, but they did not give any conclusive conclusion.
The WHO mission got a lot of criticism. For example, China would not have given full openness and, for example, withheld raw data. The researchers also spoke of political pressure. China insisted that a far-fetched theory that the virus had ended up in China via frozen food was included in the report. Research leader Peter Ben Embarek said that “of course no one wants the origin of an outbreak to lie in his backyard”.
The WHO team said that the most probable theory was that a human was infected by an animal that had been infected by a bat again. Lab theory was dismissed as “highly unlikely”, although WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that more resources were needed to fully investigate that theory.
3. Is there any evidence that the virus actually escaped from a lab?
Lab theory actually consists of two theories. The first is that the virus was created by humans themselves. “If a virus were man-made, you would only expect mutations in specific places in the virus,” says Professor of Molecular Virology at Leiden Eric Snijder. In the case of the SARS-COV-2 virus, they were spread throughout the genome.
It is striking that the virus has a so-called furin fission site. That enzyme does not occur in viruses that are most similar to the SARS-COV-2 virus. But other coronaviruses do. So it is special, but not impossible that this has been formed in nature.
Gain or functional research was also done in the lab in Wuhan. In addition, researchers make mutations in viruses to see if viruses become more virulent or contagious. That way, you are actually one step ahead of the natural evolution and you know how to fight the virus better and whether you should worry about it at all. Snijder: “This research is done in many places and must meet strict requirements. More often, however, you see a loss of function when you make mutations.”
The second lab theory is that the virus does come from nature, has been examined in the lab and accidentally escaped from it. Snijder: “Just like nuclear power plants and planes, you can never rule out an accident 100 percent.” Other existing viruses have experienced lab breaks in the past. And the security situation in the Wuhan Insitute of Virology already gave the Americans concern in 2018, as evidenced by communication from embassy staff. The Chinese argue that none of their researchers had antibodies to the virus right after the virus circulated in China.
4. Does it fall?to give an answer on the origin of the virus?
“ With the first SARS virus, we never found out what the exact source was,” says Snijder. The virus most similar to the SARS-COV-2 found in bats is 96% genetically similar: RatG13. That seems to be a small difference, but it‘s not, says Snijder: “Since the coronavirus has been circulating among humans, you can see that the virus has changed 0.1 or 0.2 percent. So there could be decades of evolution in between.”
Only it is also a matter of luck to find the missing puzzle pieces that are between the RATG13 virus and the SARS-COV-2 virus. If that’s the route of evolution of the virus. Snijder: “Perhaps it was only present at a single colony of bats in a remote cave.”