Especially not because the public, hard-tested evidence is mounting the faster the pace.
Instead, the theory seems to be based primarily on several massive coincidences.
First, Wuhan, where the disease almost certainly began in China, is home to China’s largest level 4 biosecurity laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). It and two other laboratories in Wuhan were doing research on coronaviruses, some of it in bats. The WIV sequenced the genetic code of the best-known ancestor in bats with SARS-CoV-2, a virus called RatG13. It’s 96.2% identical to the novel coronavirus that caused the pandemic. One of the leading researchers at WIV, Shi Zhengli, is called “Bat Lady”.
Finally, there is a third coincidence. The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the key to virus prevention and detection, relocated its laboratory in Wuhan on December 2, 2019. The WHO report, written in collaboration with Chinese officials, notes this fact and says it may have been disruptive to a laboratory operation. It is also noted that the laboratory has been relocated to a location near the Huanan Seafood Market, the exotic animal trading hub that is believed to have played an important role in the early spread of the virus. The move took place just six days before the first patient began to develop symptoms of Covid-19, according to China’s report. (He is, according to the WHO report, an accountant who works for a family business without being known to have attended crowded events, contact with animals in the “wet market,” or exotic trips to the wild. These facts suggest that he may have it in town, maybe from someone else).
These three pretty big coincidences advance laboratory leak theory and mean it hasn’t gone away yet. CNN has said of Western intelligence officials that they cannot “disprove” or prove the idea. These coincidences are perhaps why it is in this hinterland – never permanently exposed, never proven. Your solution is like “Occam’s razor” – the idea that the simplest explanation is the most likely.
But none of this is solid or even convincing evidence that a laboratory leak has occurred. This evidence can exist and be over-classified within the government that owns it. However, since it is not public, we cannot assume that it exists to confirm a tendency that China is hiding something terrible.
But the likelihood that China is hiding something doesn’t help either. (Even the WHO team, whose report Chinese officials helped the author, admits they want access to more material and better information – samples from hospital blood banks from the time of the outbreak and raw data in Hubei on possible cases in October and October November, although they made this clear months ago, they have yet to receive it.
This “spillover idea” is more chaotic and also difficult to definitively prove. WHO investigators share the conclusion of most specialists in the field: the disease most likely originated from bats via another species known as an “intermediate animal” and then infected humans.
Why bats? One theory is that they have a high average body temperature because they flap their wings very quickly to fly. When we humans get a virus, we get a fever. This is the body that slightly raises our temperature to kill the invader. Viruses in bats learn to deal with a higher temperature by default. So when they pass into humans, our basic defense of raising our temperature is not working. It also means that bats are a reservoir of robust viruses that have learned to survive.
Some scientists believe it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 passed directly from bats into humans. Most experts – and the WHO report – conclude that it is an “intermediate animal,” another species that was infected before the virus was passed on to humans.
In this “intermediate animal” things could have got more complicated. The bat virus that comes closest to the novel coronavirus in humans is the RatG13 virus, which the WIV found. Scientists believe one way to become SARS-CoV-2 is through a “recombination event”.
This is where a virus takes something from another virus it encounters: a bit like putting better wheels on a car. It can improve the effectiveness of the virus. Figuring out where and when this happened is a task of nightmarish complexity. China regularly screened 69 animal species for rare viruses, informed the WHO in 2019 and likely earlier. Any of them – or many other species that weren’t tested – could have been the location where a recombination event formed SARS-CoV-2.
The lab leak theory has a spin-off conspiracy here. It suggests that the RatG13 virus could have been converted into SARS-CoV-2 through targeted manipulation by humans, known as “gain in function” research. Scientists do this by modifying viruses in a laboratory to find out more about how viruses infect and affect people. It can be dangerous and was briefly interrupted in the US under the Obama administration. Some scientists say that mapping virus changes to “gain in function” research is a simple explanation that is often misused to explain changes in a virus that could have occurred through natural, complex processes. These scientists ignore their role in the formation of SARS-CoV-2.
In an open, permissible environment, it is extremely difficult to trace the virus back to the animal in which it was first created. It is even more difficult in China, where the Chinese government has not given the WHO team a lot of useful data.
These issues complicate the 90-day intelligence review ordered by US President Joe Biden. On one side of the argument there are a lot of circumstantial evidence and coincidences that indicate a laboratory leak. (US investigators need hard evidence of a leak and to assess whether China even knew it happened). On the other side of the argument that supports the transmission or spread of the virus in nature, there is the overwhelming preponderance of previous scientific research on this topic. But that too is annoying and inconclusive.
With all the blame, counter-allegations, suspicions and cover-ups, humans as a species remain a problem. We really need to know how and why this virus came about so we can prevent it from happening again.
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