Bat or man? Scientists confront virus origins

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky: “No one can say a laboratory leak is not a possibility.” © AFP

Was Covid-19 created during a lab accident? Former MI6 boss Richard Dearlove claims that a new scientific report suggests key elements of the virus were “inserted” deliberately.

Sir Richard Dearlove was the head of MI6 between 1999 and 2004.

As chief spymaster of the UK, he had to balance the management of global threats, the work of real-life James Bonds and keeping top politicians informed about all the spooky stuff.

Last week, he gave an interview to the Telegraph during which he made a stunning announcement about the coronavirus.

He had read an “important” paper by a joint team of British and Norwegian scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine. Their research suggested that Covid-19 was man-made and argued that key elements of the genetic code of the virus appeared to have been “inserted”.

Echoing claims made by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state and former head of the CIA, Sir Richard believed that the virus had been released by accident from a lab in China.

Separately, a team of Australian scientists declared that the virus was “not typical of a normal zoonotic infection” and was “uniquely adapted to infect humans”.

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, who led that study, declared: “No one can say a laboratory leak is not a possibility.”

But other members of the scientific community have been quick to dismiss any such thoughts.

Speaking to ABC News, Vincent Racaniello, professor of virology at Columbia University, called the paper “nonsense”. He said: “It is absolutely 100% impossible that Sars-CoV-2 was made in a laboratory. The elements in the virus, Sars-CoV-2, all came from bat SARS-like CoVs that circulate in nature.”

Researchers at Ohio State University also state there is “no credible evidence” of genetic engineering.

Peter Daszak, another esteemed virologist, points out that Covid-19 is similar to a number of other coronaviruses originating in bats from the Yunnan region of China, including one that killed more than 25,000 pigs between 2016 and 2017.

Nonetheless, experts are worried that the continued possibility of foul play and the repeated suggestion that China engineered the virus will only further erode the public’s trust in science.

According to one recent poll, 27% of Americans said they were unlikely to accept a coronavirus vaccine even if it was free.

So, was Covid-19 created during a lab accident?

Blame game

It is possible. The longer the origins of the virus remain unclear and the longer it takes for scientists to find a vaccine, the more likely people will suspect foul play. China did delay in telling the world that a new virus had emerged and there is a virology institute in the city where it first broke out. Until there is a proven alternative explanation, critical minds will keep wondering.

It is unlikely. The vast majority of scientific research seems to point towards the coronavirus having evolved in a bat before passing to humans via another animal. Covid-19 is highly infectious and difficult to understand, but viruses do mutate rapidly. Its exceptional characteristics are to be expected. After all, no other virus has caused such global disruption in over a century.

You Decide

  1. Would you be more or less frightened of the coronavirus if it did turn out to be man-made?
  2. Do you think that China should be punished if the coronavirus did escape from a Wuhan lab?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an evil scientist creating a deadly virus. Describe how it would work – on one side of paper.
  2. Write a short story set 100 years from now. Deadly viruses sweep the planet every year. The population is down to a seventh of what it is now. Describe a day in a life of child such as you.

Some People Say...

“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

Zbigniew Brzeziński (1928-2017) Polish-American diplomat, political scientist, and national security adviser

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that the research quoted by Sir Richard Dearlove has been dismissed by many experts. One of its original authors has withdrawn his name from the paper, and scientists from Imperial College London and the Francis Crick Institute have rejected its conclusions. We know that coronaviruses are studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is situated not far from the market where initial reports suggested the virus first spread.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether Professor Petrovsky’s findings imply foul play. An unusually infectious virus could always be a natural occurrence. One expert familiar with the Wuhan Institute of Virology said of the chances that the virus escaped from the lab, “There definitely is a possibility. But there is no basis to say a high probability.” We do not seem to have any hard proof of where exactly the virus first spread to humans.

Word Watch

MI6
Military intelligence department 6, or the secret intelligence service, is the name given to the UK’s international spies.
Spooky
Spies are often referred to as spooks. A lot of the work they do might seem scary to most.
Zoonotic
A disease that spreads from an animal to a human. AIDs, Sars, Swine Flu are all examples of zoonotic diseases.
Virology
The scientific study of viruses.
SARS-CoV-2
The official scientific name for the novel coronavirus, commonly known as Covid-19.
Yunnan
Southern Chinese province bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Kunming is its largest city.
Erode
Work away at, reduce in size or importance. Mountains erode over time, waves erode cliffs.

Subjects

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