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What happened at the Wuhan Virology Laboratory?
What happened at the Wuhan Virology Laboratory?

Almost a year and a half ago, the first cases of infection with the new coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, China. The alleged source of infection was a seafood market located near the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Hearing this (especially if you've read and watched a lot of science fiction), the picture in your head builds up pretty quickly: in the laboratory for testing viruses on monkeys, one of the employees becomes infected by pure chance, or, for example, an infected monkey escapes.

There are many options, you know. But reality, nevertheless, is not science fiction and in April the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on the origin of SARS-CoV-2. It looks at four theories about the origins of the coronavirus and says, among other things, that more research is needed on almost every topic raised in the course of the work.

At the same time, the researchers consider the last, fourth theory about the leakage of the virus from the laboratory in Wuhan to be the least likely. According to the results of previously published scientific studies, COVID-19 appeared naturally. So why is everyone talking about the Wuhan Institute of Virology again?

What is studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

The laboratory's first project, Nature writes in a 2017 article, was to study the BSL-3 pathogen that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever: a deadly tick-borne virus that infects livestock around the world, including in northwestern China, and which can be transmitted to people. Subsequently, scientists from the institute began studying other viruses, including the SARS coronavirus, finding that horseshoe bats in China are their natural reservoirs.

This work continued and in 2015 a study was published, the results of which showed that the hybrid virus developed by the team was adapted to grow in mice and mimic the disease in humans. The authors of the scientific work, published in the journal Nature, noted that "the virus has the potential to be transmitted to humans."

Subsequently, the laboratory was surrounded by many rumors, including various leaks, such as in Beijing, when the SARS virus escaped from high-security rooms. Then the prospect of expanding the capabilities of the Wuhan laboratory (in particular, starting work with monkeys) aroused the fear of many researchers outside the country.

Today, the theory of the laboratory accident has gone beyond rumor and seems to be looking increasingly plausible: On May 13, a group of 18 scientists from elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale published an open letter in Science calling for "serious." consider the leak hypothesis. Researchers are urged to work until there is enough data to rule it out.

Laboratory Leak: True or False?

To understand why the world's leading scientists paid close attention to the Wuhan laboratory, let's refresh our memory a little: the first focus of infection was registered in Wuhan, and the victims seemed to be related to the seafood market. Let me also remind you that the transition of the virus from animal to human in the conditions prevailing on the market is still one of the main hypotheses for the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

It is noteworthy that the alternative hypothesis of a leak from the laboratory was met with skepticism by the world scientific community.(Probably, to some extent, the researchers fear the emergence of all sorts of conspiracy theories. But even so, it did not help). The situation, however, took an unexpected turn in May, when The Wall Street Journal, citing a report from the intelligence services, published an article according to which three researchers from the Wuhan laboratory fell ill in the fall of 2019 and needed inpatient care.

The article also states that in April 2012, six workers at a mine in Yunnan province in southwestern China fell ill. All patients had symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. According to the results of analyzes of the miners, they suffered from pneumonia, and by mid-August, three of them had died. Then experts from the Wuhan Institute of Virology began research and eventually collected about a thousand samples in the mine. These samples were then found to contain nine types of coronaviruses.

One of them, called RaTG13, had a genetic code 96% similar to the genome with SARS-CoV-2. This is the closest "relative" of COVID-19, although it is at a "huge evolutionary distance." The researchers note that both types of these coronaviruses split up decades ago. Virologist Shi Zhengli, who is working to study these types of viruses, assured The Wall Street Journal that the miners did not get COVID-19.

Where did the new coronavirus come from?

A report recently published on the BioRxiv preprint server detailed information on the coronaviruses found in the mine. The researchers note: "The findings show that the coronaviruses we found in bats may be just the tip of the iceberg." At the same time, they also claim that eight non-RaTG13 viruses, which are almost identical to each other, are only 77% similar to SARS-CoV2. It is also noteworthy that these coronaviruses, according to the researchers, have not shown the ability to infect human cells.

"While there is speculation about a possible leak of the RaTG13 coronavirus from the Wuhan laboratory (which triggered the COVID-19 pandemic), experimental evidence does not support this," the report concludes.

But where, in this case, came the distrust on the part of the scientific community? The reason, in part, lies in the fact that the WHO mission to study the origin of SARS-CoV-2 spent only three hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and its members were able to access only pre-processed data. As we wrote earlier, the report stated that the hypothesis of a laboratory accident was “extremely unlikely,” while the hypothesis of natural transmission of the virus was named the most likely.

Yet two days after the report was published, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the possibility of a leak could not be ruled out and a more thorough investigation was needed. The WHO representative, however, when asked by TWS reporters about whether the organization is considering the recommendations of the report on the origin of the virus at a technical level, replied that the upcoming research will include a hypothesis about an accident in the laboratory, but it is still not clear whether it will be carried out.

It seems that the truth about what happened within the walls of the Wuhan laboratory, we will not find out soon.

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