Did the Sars Cov-2 virus, which has infected 1.4 million people and caused more than 82,000 deaths, escape from a lab in Wuhan? Is there a cheap cure already available? The answer to both questions appears to be yes but the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organisation have done everything they can to obscure the truth.
The origin of the virus is critical. If it emerged from an animal population, it is important to understand where and how to assess the probability of it re-emerging. A cheap cure is equally vital. It will give confidence to governments to kickstart their moribund economies.
Once dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories,’ senior people at the highest levels of the Australian, UK and US governments and within their intelligence communities now believe that the virus may have leaked from one of two research labs in Wuhan. That would be the ultimate disgrace for the Chinese Communist Party, trying to put around the notion that it handled the pandemic well. In February, Danielle E. Anderson, Assistant Professor, Duke-NUS Medical School, told Facebook fact-checkers that it was ‘appalling’ to suggest the virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and she could personally attest to the strict measures implemented there. On 3 April, David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post that ‘scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus that had been collected for scientific study’ and that ‘accidents happen.’
A team of scientists took another tack. Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes (based at Sydney University) and Robert F. Garry argued in Nature Medicine (17 Apr.) that the virus could not have been engineered because if it had, it would not have been engineered in this way. They write that two features of the new virus — its receptor-binding domain (RBD) and its distinct backbone ‘rule out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for Sars-CoV-2.’
That’s an odd argument because a team of scientists at the WIV did engineer a bat virus in exactly this way and published the results in the American Society for Microbiology’s Journal of Virology in February 2008. They wrote that they were the first to genetically engineer a Sars-like coronavirus found in horseshoe bats to make it infectious to humans.
Many of these scientists are still at the WIV working on the new Sars coronavirus, which must come in handy given the genetic similarities between the two viruses. Two of the team, however, worked at the CSIRO Biosecurity Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the time. One has since retired but Professor Lin-Fa Wang is now director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, an advisor to the WHO and works with Anderson and the WIV on bat coronaviruses. It’s a small world!
On 3 January the WIV team announced that they had sequenced the virus but did not release the genome. Eventually, a week later Professor Holmes submitted the gene sequencing data on behalf of a group from Fudan University, where he is an honorary visiting professor giving it to Andrew Rambaut, the administrator of Virological.org and professor of molecular evolution at the University of Edinburgh. When the WIV team submitted a paper to Nature on 20 January they pointed out that it was 96 per cent identical to a horseshoe bat coronavirus from Yunnan province and used the same cell entry receptor as Sars.
But that wasn’t all. The WIV team was also conducting in vitro research on the efficacy of two drugs to control of Sars-Cov-2. One was Remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences which had shown good antiviral activity against Sars and Mers coronavirus. The other was chloroquine, a cheap generic drug that stopped both Sars and Sars-Cov-2 from entering human cells or from replicating itself.
Surprisingly, on 21 January the WIV team filed a patent for Remdesivir although they didn’t announce their results until 4 February when they said both drugs had delivered such positive results that they should be trialled in patients and started that week.
Up until this point, the WHO had been content to spout the lies of the Chinese government that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission and to call for no restrictions on travel allowing thousands of Chinese travellers to carry the virus all over the world.
On 24 January, the WHO held an informal consultation on prioritisation of therapeutic agents for use against Covid-19. Bizarrely, despite the concrete evidence from 2005 that chloroquine was effective in killing off the first Sars virus and the Chinese discovery that it could kill off the new virus in vitro, the WHO concluded that ‘Remdesivir’ was the most promising candidate and that an HIV protease inhibitor lopinavir/ritonavir owned by pharmaceutical giant AbbVie was the second suitable option for clinical trials.
This was as good as gold for Gilead — the promise of Remdesivir has added $16 billion to Gilead’s market value since the start of the year — but bad news for taxpayers, especially in developing countries, who would have to foot the bill.
When leading Chinese experts announced in mid-February that the results with chloroquine were so impressive that it would be incorporated into their standard treatment, this caught the attention of Professor Didier Raoult who started trials in France. Meanwhile, a succession of scientists who had been on Gilead’s payroll talked Remdesivir up and chloroquine down. But despite the hostility of the French government to chloroquine, banning it except in the WHO trial, the bodies have been piling up in the departements that don’t use the drug, while in Marseille, the second biggest city in France, the death toll has been one of the lowest. In Bas-Rhin the ratio of deaths to hospitalisations is 37 per cent. In Paris and Saint Denis it is 16-17 per cent. In Marseille, it’s 7 per cent. At Raoult’s hospital it’s 0.35 per cent – 7 deaths out of 1,962 treated with his protocol.
As speculation mounted in February that one of the Wuhan labs might be the source of the virus, the Director-General of WHO issued a call to promote scientific evidence and unity over ‘misinformation and conjecture.’ Scientists, many on the payroll of the WHO, Chinese universities or the Chinese government denounced the ‘misinformation.’ But the ‘rumours’ won’t die. Even K. Andersen says his analysis probably won’t lay ‘conspiracy’ theories to rest and admits ‘I was myself sceptical at the beginning and I kept flipping back and forth.’ What is certain is that if the virus was engineered in a lab, or escaped from one, and if chloroquine is a cheap generic cure, the WHO will be the last to admit it.
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