Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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China’s Wuhan story unravels as world’s finest, including from India, nail Covid lab-leak proof

The global hunt for where the virus behind pandemic came from shows science, democracy and a sense of inquiry can overcome politics, ideology and omerta codes.

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How do we explain the current state in the Covid pandemic?

Let’s put it this way. If you watch live cricket on Indian TV channels, you can’t miss that prolific perfume advertisement where a young man has his shirt blown away in a storm, exposing his well-muscled torso and a young woman, full female gaze, says: Your clothes are gone. But the fragrance remains.

Something of the sort has happened with the pandemic. The second wave has blown away. But what it has left behind is a stink, not a fragrance. Where did this monster virus come from? An animal or a lab, the lab? Did it reach us humans naturally or because of very dangerous scientific research gone wrong? Is it biological warfare? The virus gone for now, the air is heavy with international suspicion.

Until January, while Donald Trump was still in office, anybody talking of a possibility other than zoonotic (animal-to-human, presumably through an intermediate vector) was dismissed as a conspiracy-theorist nutcase. Change came rapidly once Trump was gone. Gone with him also was his influence so toxic and polarising it had also infected that last bastion of rationality and fact-based argument: Bio-sciences. 

His departure brought sanity and healthy scepticism back into bio-sciences. The same top scientists who wouldn’t be willing to even engage in a debate on where the virus came from, were now asking some obvious questions. If it came from an animal, how come no animal has yet been traced as a primary or intermediary reservoir in 18 months?

Why had China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) sealed all its data in December 2019? Why didn’t the Americans or indeed the world know that the Chinese scientists were carrying out ‘Gain of Function’ (GoF) research, which involves genetically altering already-deadly viruses, in partnership and on funding by US scientific bodies? Why did the Chinese reject all the names of scientists the US suggested as its members on the WHO’s fact-finding committee but hand-pick just one, Peter Daszak of New York-based EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), who had funded the Wuhan lab’s gain of function research? A pattern of careful and selective sharing of the truth by Shi Zhengli, the famous “bat lady” of WIV, was emerging too. What did the Chinese have to hide?

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The governments and the scientific establishment were still wary of touching that can of worms. If it has now been kicked loose, we have to be grateful to a large, diverse, multinational ‘army’ of scientists, mathematicians, data analysts, even sci-fi authors and journalists, who’ve come together to collaborate with one objective: To discover where the virus came from. The source of the stink.

Most of them are now part of a loosely structured organisation called DRASTIC. Short for Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19. It was launched by Gilles Demaneuf, a curiouser-than-cat data scientist at the Bank of New Zealand. He was soon joined by sci-fi author and noted scholar Jamie Metzl, and then the ‘gang’ grew as sharp, curious men and women across the world got together.

The group also includes some remarkable Indians, the most significant being an anonymous science teacher who tweets @TheSeeker268. We don’t know him/her. But we do know Drs Monali Rahalkar and Rahul Bahulikar, the Pune-based scientist couple from the Department of Biotechnology’s Agharkar Research Institute and the BAIF Development Research Foundation, respectively, who played a key role too in establishing the most important fact that led to this reversal: That a virus refrigerated in her lab that Shi Zhengli said had a 96.2 per cent resemblance to Covid-19, was the same as the one that in 2012 sickened six labourers who had gone in to clear bat guano (faeces) in a copper mine at Mojiang, part of Yunnan province.

It is just that it had been named differently, and never talked about. It was a shocking case of scientific concealment as that was the first time a bat coronavirus was seen to infect humans directly (without an intermediary). All six had severe pneumonia, three died. Why did the Chinese hide this from the rest of the world?

Was it an act of subterfuge? Why did they rename the virus RaTG13 and not tell anybody it was the same as the original, RaBtCoV/4991 that sickened six miners in the Mojiang mine? Further, did the WIV researchers work on this virus as a backbone to stick some other spike proteins or genetic material on it to make it more infectious or deadly to humans?

It does look like they did. To understand the basics, I’d suggest watch this interview that the brilliant Monali Rahalkar has given my colleague Jyoti Malhotra. She explains the sequence, how she and her husband found that the two viruses with different names are the same. If you are more curious, as I hope you are given how life-altering this virus has been for us, I’d also suggest you read two former New York Times Science editors, Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Donald McNeil Jr on Medium, and noted investigative writer Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair.

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Wade cracked the mystery for larger audiences. He also noted that this virus had a peculiar genomic feature, called ‘furin cleavage’ that wasn’t found in bat coronaviruses and made it much more infectious. Was it engineered in a lab? Were the Chinese scientists stitching genetic material from elsewhere, using the one 96.2 per cent similar to Covid-19, and it escaped from the lab? He caused a stir when he got David Baltimore, a 1975 Nobel laureate and globally respected biologist at Caltech, to call it a “smoking gun” to indicate it was a result of gain of function activity.

If you read Eban after Wade, and listen to Rahalkar carefully, a plausible picture opens up. That WIV kept working on that 2012 Mojiang mine virus until 2015 and then went silent on it. It did produce a new virus and also tested it on ‘humanised’ mice where cellular material is introduced to make the animal respond to an infection more like humans, as in having ACE2 receptors that Covid-19 seeks. It was a lot more infectious.

These mice came from the big US lab at the University of North Carolina, one of the three in America carrying out GoF research. Its boss, Prof. Ralph Baric, had trained Shi Zhengli in GoF research.

All this, tens of thousands of words of writing, brings many more revelations. The two key ones are: 1. That Peter Daszak not only signed but also orchestrated a letter to The Lancet very early in the pandemic killing the lab-leak theory. Eban’s piece quotes an incredible email chat between him and Baric where they write that it’s best for the two of them not to sign the letter as they will be seen as conflicted. Daszak did, and Baric didn’t. He’s the one who’s crossed over now. And 2. That as soon as the first cases surfaced in Wuhan, Chinese PLA sent its chief virologist, epidemiologist and bio-defence scientist, Major General Chen Wei, with her team to take charge at WIV.

You can find a lot more in these very long articles. You marvel at the research Wade and Eban have put in. But also wonder how come the writer who first belled the cat, Wade, could find no established publication or journal to publish his 11,000-word piece? He self-published it first on Medium. McNeil wrote on Medium as well and though his is more a commentary on Wade, he explains with great honesty and candour his shift from an utter lab-leak sceptic to seeking a deeper inquiry. Occam’s Razor, the most likely outcome between natural origin and lab-leak, he says, has swung to the latter.

There is more to come on this story. That’s about as inevitable as the fresh waves of the virus. But the big positive from all this is that science, democracy, sense of inquiry, all work, unmindful of the multiple establishments and borders. It is this that brings together the finest minds from all over the world, bound by shared respect and trust, linked by the Internet. From New Zealand to the US via France and indeed in India to challenge one superpower desperate to keep an awful secret, and the other too polarised to unravel it. 

And finally, it tells us that science is all about critical thinking. It even questions God or if God exists. That’s why it was particularly dismaying to watch Dr Anthony Fauci say in a TV interview, “if you question me, you question science”. It was almost like claiming scientific divinity. And so unlike the admired scientist he is.

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