Features Australia

China’s Frankenstein virus

Does this monster have French and American uncles?

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

In the looking-glass world of Australia’s national broadcaster, a journalist claimed this week that there is ‘no evidence’ the Covid-19 virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan. In reality, there is even less evidence that it spontaneously evolved in a species sold in the Huanan seafood market. In its absence, Ockam’s Razor — a concept the ABC ought to understand, since it has a program named after it — suggests that a lab is the most likely origin of the virus. And an increasing number of scientists will not be intimidated into pretending otherwise.

If the market is the source of the virus, why have the samples collected from it not been shared with foreigners? Why did Beijing order ‘unauthorised’ labs to destroy early samples of the virus? As Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong asked, ‘The crime scene is completely gone. How can we solve a case without evidence?’ Elementary, as Sherlock Holmes might have said. The virus is so unlike those from which it is meant to have evolved that it is either ‘a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention,’ says Nikolai Petrovsky, professor of medicine at Flinders University. Normally, he explains, a virus has its highest affinity for the receptor in its original host and adapts over time to its new host but ‘the novel coronavirus most powerfully binds with human ACE2’ and has done since the earliest days of the outbreak. This suggests the virus was created by a ‘recombination event’ that occurred ‘inadvertently or consciously’ in a laboratory and was ‘accidentally released into the local human population.’ And while there are no signs the virus was rapidly spliced by a ‘gene jockey,’ it shows signs of being ‘cultured’ in cells.

His findings tally with those of a Canadian team which compared samples of the virus with those from the Sars epidemic and found that, unlike during the Sars outbreak where there were ‘multiple branches of evolution in both humans and animals,’ this virus appeared without peer or subsequent mutations, suggesting ‘a single introduction of the human-adapted form of the virus into the human population.’ There was also no evidence ‘of cross-species transmission’ at the market, rather that the virus had been imported into the market by humans. Chinese scientists studying samples of infected patients came to the same conclusion; and a Lancet paper in January found the first case in Wuhan had no link to the market.

The same logic led Professor Botao Xiao to conclude that ‘the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan,’ of which there are two. The Wuhan Centre for Disease Control (WHCDC) is located less than 300 metres from the market, has hundreds of bat and corona virus specimens and a chief bat collector who is a cowboy and has boasted to media about being sprayed by bat blood and urine. Across town at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Shi Zhengli, China’s famous ‘Bat Woman’ collaborated with Ralph Baric, a professor at the University of North Carolina on a number of firsts including the generation of synthetic, recombinant Sars-like bat coronavirus with a spike that made it not only infectious to humans, via ACE2, but more virulent because it antagonised the host’s immune responses. Worse, it was not treatable with any available Sars-based therapies or vaccines. This Frankenstein virus was announced to the world in a paper ominously titled, ‘A Sars-like Cluster of Circulating Bat Coronaviruses Shows Potential for Human Emergence.’ Was a sample of it stored at the WHCDC?

The paper created an uproar. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity warned in May 2016 that these sort of gain of function (GOF) studies entailed ‘significant risks’ including the ‘increased probability of an outbreak escaping local control’ with ‘global consequences.’ But despite bans on GOF research in the US, Baric and Zhengli persuaded Dr Antony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Health, US Aid and the US Department of Defence to continue to fund their research, including through grants to the US-based Eco-Health Alliance. They argued that they would use the lethal viruses they continued to make to develop treatments and vaccines. Indeed, Baric is working with none other than Gilead Sciences to test Remdesivir, the drug which failed to treat Ebola and has now failed to reduce the mortality rate of Covid-19. And guess what? Exposing a virus to Remdesivir speeds up mutations. A handy property for a gene jockey that wants to induce changes while covering their tracks.

Yet when Zhengli published a paper in Nature in February on the origins of the virus, she said nothing about her GOF research. Instead, she wrote that the virus was 96.2 per cent identical to a mysterious bat virus which she said she had collected in 2013 but had never written about called RaTG13. This is unprofessional and inexplicable behaviour. RaTG13 has the unmistakeable capacity to infect humans via ACE2. Its discovery is as significant as that of the two viruses she also discovered that year and for which she received international acclaim. It is quite a coincidence that in one year, she found the progenitor not just of the first Sars outbreak, but of the second, before it had even occurred, but said nothing about the latter. Why? One scientist has posited in a preprint that Zhengli simply renamed another virus — RaBtCov/4991 — whose genome has never been published in full but had striking similarities to RaTG13. But if so, why didn’t Zhengli mention this in her Nature paper? Her bizarre behaviour has given rise to speculation that RaTG13 may not even exist (there is no physical evidence) and is part of a Chinese cover up to create the illusion that the Covid-19 virus has a cousin and thus a natural origin rather than being an evil mutant that leaked from a lab. These fears might be dispelled if a sample was independently sequenced. Don’t hold your breath.

Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier has repeatedly said the virus was manipulated and escaped from a lab and hopes one day the scientists will admit it but with so many dead, ‘nobody wants to carry this very heavy burden.’ And, he adds, because WIV research was financed by the US, ‘nobody wants to bring the truth to light.’ Not France, which designed and funded WIV. Not the scientists who have already protested that its GOF funding was finally halted this month.

‘Somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus’ wrote Xiao in February, urging that the labs be relocated far from densely populated places and safely levels increased. Don’t bank on it happening. China plans to build up to 30 more. As Einstein once quipped, ‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.’ The evidence of that — and not only at the ABC— is all too abundant.

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