New Delhi: As the world once again debates the the origin of the coronavirus and whether lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology led to the beginning of the Covid pandemic, experts are referring to a previous research, in which the US and China had collaborated to create a similar and dangerous virus which had the potential to cause a pandemic.
The institute is in the same city in China where the first case of Covid-19 was recorded.
Back in 2015, scientists from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in the US and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had together created a modified coronavirus that was shown to be able to latch on to human cells and replicate in lung cells, efficiently enough to cause a pandemic.
The study published in the journal Nature is an example of a ‘gain of function’ research that the two groups had been involved in for several years.
‘Gain of function’ is a field of research focused on growing generations of microorganisms, under conditions that cause mutations in a virus. These experiments are termed ‘gain of function’ because they involve manipulating pathogens in a way that they gain an advantage in or through a function, such as increased transmissibility.
Such experiments allow scientists to better predict emerging infectious diseases, and to develop vaccines and therapeutics.
The coronavirus research in 2015 was, it seems, among the last such gain of function research conducted in the US, before the Obama administration temporarily paused the funding of such research studies.
In that study, which had primarily been conducted in the US lab, the team had taken the spike protein of SHC014-CoV, a virus which was circulating in the Chinese horseshoe bat populations, and attached it to a SARS-like virus that had the ability to infect mice.
The results of the study showed that viruses with the SHC014 spike protein can effectively use the human angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2) to replicate efficiently in the human lung cells and potentially cause an epidemic.
Lab experiments showed the replication of the artificial virus in mouse lung could not be treated with available SARS-based immune-therapeutics and preventive drugs.
Both antibody therapies and vaccine approaches failed to neutralise and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein.
Interestingly, the spike protein in this study had been supplied to the US lab by Zhengli-Li Shi, the noted Chinese virologist who researches SARS-like coronaviruses of bat origin at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In a linked statement, which has now been removed from the UNC website, researchers had said their study was important in the context of the ongoing debate over the US government’s decision to suspend all gain of function experiments.
“The move has put a substantial standstill on the development of vaccines or treatments for these pathogens should there be an outbreak,” it read.
“Studies have predicted the existence of nearly 5,000 coronaviruses in bat populations and some of these have the potential to emerge as human pathogens,” senior author Ralph Baric, a faculty member at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and expert in coronaviruses, had said at the time. “So this is not a situation of ‘if ‘there will be an outbreak of one of these coronaviruses but rather when and how prepared we’ll be to address it,” Baric had said.
And indeed, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic proved that the world was not adequately equipped to handle it.
When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic broke out last year, this 2015 study came under the scanner not only because the pathogenesis and characteristics of the artificially generated virus were similar to what was observed with the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because of the involvement of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the same city where the virus broke out.
However, in February 2020, a team from the US showed that the genomic sequences of the two viruses did not match.
Nevertheless, the study highlights that though the US has been demanding an investigation into a possible lab leak from Wuhan as the source of the Covid pandemic, the two countries were working together in ‘gain of function’ research projects focused on coronaviruses similar to the one that has claimed over 3.5 million lives across the globe so far.
With increased scrutiny on viral research in their own country, the US began funding such studies in China.
Wuhan Institute of Virology under scrutiny
White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci revealed on 25 May that the US National Institutes of Health earmarked $600,000 for the Wuhan Institute of Virology over a five-year period to study whether bat coronaviruses could be transmitted to humans.
However, he denied that these funds given to the Chinese lab through the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance were for ‘gain of function’ research. Yet, Fauci also stated that there was no guarantee that the Chinese counterparts did not lie about the research they were conducting.
Relations between the two countries have been strained for more than a year, since the SARS-CoV-2 began to make its presence felt, with scientists still unsure of how the pandemic started.
While scientists had initially suggested that the virus had spilled over to humans from bats through an intermediary animal, the WHO-China joint study in March this year failed to identify this host. Moreover, the report also pointed out that the Wuhan city is not near a bat habitat.
Meanwhile, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has come under scrutiny as the lab was known to conduct research with coronaviruses. Though the WHO-China report said a virus leak from this lab was highly unlikely, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was not satisfied with the study, and has said the lab leak theory could not be dismissed.
The lab leak theory was back in circulation after a report published on 23 May suggested that the US intelligence had found that three laboratory workers in Wuhan were hospitalised in November 2019 with coronavirus-like symptoms, a month before the pandemic’s first declared case.
China has now retaliated, suggesting that the US is peddling “conspiracy theories”.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)