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The results of the Covid-19 pandemic are kept strictly: 180 million cases, almost 3.8 million deaths and several trillion dollars in losses to the global economy as of the end of June 2021. However, the source of the infection, which swept the world at the end of 2019, still remains exactly unknown.
Of course, the most credible hypothesis is the natural origin of the new coronavirus, which mutated on the way from bats to humans - possibly through an intermediate host, for example, pangolins.
Simplifying greatly, we can say that the arguments of its supporters are based on the fact that "this is a common thing, it happens all the time." We ourselves predicted something similar shortly before the global start of the pandemic. They are opposed by adherents of a semi-conspiracy theory about the artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2, especially since it is in Chinese Wuhan, from where the pandemic began, that one of the world's leading centers for the study of coronaviruses is located. Their arguments, by and large, boil down to the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located exactly here: "Do you think it's a coincidence?"
At the beginning of the pandemic, against the background of the general hostility of the American establishment to the policies of the then President Donald Trump, including his anti-Chinese rhetoric (up to racist), any speculation about the artificial origin of the new coronavirus looked like something completely unacceptable. In February 2020, The Lancet published an open letter signed by dozens of prominent experts who opposed accusations of their Chinese colleagues of "leaking" the virus from the laboratory.
However, a little over a year has passed, and the situation has changed markedly. Donald Trump practically does not occupy public attention, and it is impossible to completely reject the hypothesis of artificial origin. Quite a few scholars argue that, while highly unlikely, it would be wrong to completely abandon the story on the basis of political incorrectness alone. The modest results of the work of the commission investigating the origin of SARS-CoV-2 on the spot also added fuel to the fire. It turned out that some of the early laboratory samples in China were destroyed, that the authorities did not provide experts with access to some "sensitive" laboratories, that information about the new disease was strictly censored from the very beginning.
It would seem that all this is a completely normal reaction of the authorities. However, already in May 2021, a new open letter from 18 experts appeared in the journal Science, which directly stated: "It is necessary to seriously consider both natural and artificial options until enough data is obtained." And the new President of the United States, Joseph Biden, officially announced that he had instructed the country's special services to conduct their own investigation. Let's spend and we - ours.
About a year ago, Scientific American published an article about the work of Shi Zhengli from the same Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to her, back in December 2019, after learning about the spread of cases of mysterious pneumonia in the city, she wondered if the source had "leaked" from her laboratory. After all, in order to "jump" from an animal carrier and infect a person, the virus must change, and here the place was just right for this.
Shi Zhengli is one of the world's leading coronavirus specialists.Under her team, work is underway to study their genetic diversity, as well as experiments on mutation with the acquisition of function: scientists are trying to obtain strains with new abilities in order to better understand which genes and how exactly virulence ("infectiousness") and pathogenicity are determined. and it is better to fight them.
It is clear that such experiments are a double-edged sword, and are not always welcomed. In 2014, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a moratorium on such work. And while the NIH is sponsoring some research on the Wuhan WIV, officials say no funds have been allocated for the acquisition of function mutations.
Nevertheless, such experiments were carried out in WIV, and scientists (including Shi Zhengli) back in 2015 created "chimeric" viruses that combine genes of different natural strains. And in 2017, an article was published about the changes that bat coronaviruses need to be able to infect humans (a curious note indicates that this work was funded by the NIH). According to some experts, such publications indicate that the institute carried out work, in principle, making it possible to obtain SARS-CoV-2.
Past experience also suggests that a "leak" from the laboratory is quite possible. This has happened more than once in the past - just remember that the last victim of smallpox was the British photographer Janet Parker, who died as a result of contact with the virus from the laboratory of the University of Birmingham School of Medicine. Moreover, it was found that in WIV with coronaviruses they worked according to biosafety standards of the second level, and not the third or fourth, as is usually recommended. This means that the staff did not undergo additional medical examinations, did not use respirators and an airlock to enter and exit the laboratories.
All these chilling facts are of great interest to the public. Therefore, each of them was examined by the American, and then the world media, with great attention, despite the fact that the possibility of a leak does not say anything about whether it actually happened. The Wall Street Journal even unearthed a 2012 case where several workers hired to clean up a cave of bats from guano fell ill with a mysterious pneumonia - and they were studied by experts in Wuhan.
Then, previously unknown strains of coronaviruses were discovered, and the same animal could have several at once, which makes it possible for genetic recombination between them. Subsequently, it turned out that the genome of one of these viruses (RaTG13) overlaps with SARS-CoV-2 by more than 96 percent, which may indicate a connection between them. BioEssays even published an article, the authors of which argued that the new coronavirus could be obtained on the basis of RaTG13 with the addition of a receptor-binding domain borrowed from the coronavirus found in pangolins and only slightly modified.
However, 96 percent genomic coincidence is not that impressive figure. Suffice it to recall that the DNA of humans and chimpanzees differs by only 1-2 percent. And the difference between RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 indicates that their paths diverged several decades ago, and there are no traces of artificial stimulation of mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 genome. With the pangolin receptor, the situation is even more deplorable: for SARS-CoV-2, it would have to be modified in almost 15 percent of the sites, which is extremely difficult and time-consuming.
The investigation continues
It is not surprising that it is sometimes difficult to see the “trees” behind this “forest”, and to notice that there are no reliable facts indicating the artificial nature of the new coronavirus among them. As we already said, all these arguments boil down to one unusual coincidence: the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located in Wuhan, and this is where coronaviruses are studied. If we take a closer look at the problem, the hypothesis of natural origin is still the main and most reasonable one.
As the authors of the article published in Nature Medicine note, any reliable indication that SARS-CoV-2 or viruses very closely related to them were grown at the institute before the start of the pandemic could become evidence of the laboratory leak - but they are not. The same conclusion was reached by Shi Zhengli, whose employees carried out a total sequencing of the coronavirus samples they had, and did not find anything suitable for the role of the "predecessor" of SARS-CoV-2.
But in nature, there were plenty of them. Recent studies show that coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats not only in China, but also in neighboring countries - Thailand, Japan, Cambodia. Such widespread distribution creates good conditions for the emergence of new mutations and the emergence of new strains that can infect people. The reports of pneumonia among laboratory workers before the pandemic were also checked: they all turned out to be "common", and there is no evidence that it was Covid-19.
Meanwhile, WHO experts are preparing for the next visit to China and Wuhan for new checks. This time, they are going to get and analyze blood samples from patients, which have been stored in hospitals and in the WIV itself, over the past couple of years. It remains to make sure that they do not contain antibodies indicating contact with SARS-CoV-2. In the meantime, there is no reason to blame the WIV scientists. Local laboratories show no signs of work with the new coronavirus or its precursors before the pandemic. Genetics indicate that no artificial manipulations with the SARS-CoV-2 genome were performed. If there were such "reasonable doubts", no prosecutor would have brought charges.