A man carrying a child, both wearing protective masks and raincoats, walk inside the Hankou railway station in Wuhan, China | Representational image | Bloomberg
A man carrying a child, both wearing protective masks and raincoats, walk inside the Hankou railway station in Wuhan, China | Representational image | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: From sharing screenshots of the now deleted database of viruses collected by the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to revelations about how it was taken down just on 12 September 2019, weeks before the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in that city, and the association of China’s “bat woman” Shi Zhengli with that database, a group of disparate researchers is challenging the natural origin hypothesis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The group that calls itself DRASTIC — Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19 — has brought out a series of papers, some of them not yet peer-reviewed, to offer arguments in favour of the theory that the SARS-CoV-2, that triggered the Covid-19 pandemic, is in fact not of natural origin but leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan.

Their revelations have not only brought in sharp focus the role of WIV in the genesis of the pandemic, but has also raised questions about the New York-based Eco Health Alliance (EHA) that received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and funded ‘gain of function’ research on viruses in Wuhan.

Gain of function involves changing the essential characteristics of a pathogen to make it more transmissible or more lethal to the human race, apparently in a bid to understand how these things work in nature and can be contained. The EHA is led by Peter Daszak.


Also read: Story of how ‘amateur sleuths’ forced world to consider Wuhan lab leak theory about Covid


On the database

There have been repeated contradictions by key people about the reasons for the final removal of the database in 2019, and about the exact contents of it. DRASTIC listed out the following as instances of these contradictions.

  • “In Dec 2020, Pr. Shi Zhengli explained in a BBC interview that access to the DB [database] was stopped to prevent cyber security attacks.”
  • “On the 26th January 2021, Pr. Shi Zhengli confirmed again that the database has been taken offline ‘during Covid-19 pandemic’ in an email answer to Tommy Cleary.”
  • “On the 10th March 2021, during a Chatham House interview, Peter Daszak repeated the exact reason given by Shi Zhengli in her email to Tommy Cleary above.”

“These three statements do not make any sense since the main database was taken offline on the 12 Sep 2019, 3 months at least before the official start of the pandemic. So either the reason given for taking the database off is not correct (which raises more questions), or the statement points at an outbreak in Sep 2019.”

Zhengli was the administrator of the database.

DRASTIC calls its members “Twitter detectives”, which includes some based in India. On their website, this is how they pitch some of their reports on the origins of the virus: “Ignore the Doctored WHO ‘Joint Report’. Read what they forgot to investigate!”


Also read: What scientists now say on Covid origin in Wuhan lab and what they dismissed prematurely


Asking questions

In an editorial titled ‘Should we discount the laboratory origin of COVID19’ published on 25 March 2021 in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, the group wrote: “More than a year after the initial documented cases in Wuhan, the source of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be identified, and the search for a direct or intermediate host in nature has been so far unsuccessful.”

“The low binding affinity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat ACE2 studied to date does not support Chiroptera as a direct zoonotic agent. Furthermore, the reliance on pangolin coronavirus receptor binding domain (RBD) similarity to SARS-CoV-2 as evidence for natural zoonotic spillover is flawed, as pangolins are unlikely to play a role in SARS-CoV-2′s origin and recombination is not supported by recent analysis. At the same time, genomic analyses pointed out that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits multiple peculiar characteristics not found in other Sarbecoviruses. A novel multibasic furin cleavage site (FCS) confers numerous pathogenetically advantageous capabilities, the existence of which is difficult to explain though natural evolution; SARS-CoV-2 to human ACE2 binding is far stronger than SARS-CoV, yet there is no indication of amount of evolutionary adaptation that SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV underwent.”

What the paper points to is the numerous scientific objections to the original theory about natural origin of the virus, including the furin cleavage site — sometimes described as the “smoking gun” for the lab origin of the virus. The contention is that it was not linked to any pre-existing, known virus backbone, and the fact that the virus that is hypothesised to have originated in bats is actually a worse fit for bat receptors than it is for human ones.

The furin cleavage site is a site near the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 that cleaves the virus into two subunits when it comes in contact with some enzymes present in the human body. It is possible to introduce such a site into a virus of zoonotic origin in the laboratory to make it infectious for humans.

In one document, DRASTIC listed out questions about the stands taken by WIV and large sections of the scientific community on the natural origin of the virus. The questions cover incidents such as the 2012 pneumonia outbreak in miners in China’s Mojiang that was not reported to the World Health Organization (WHO); in fact it was not known at all prior to 2020. It also asks whether a similar outbreak in miners in Yunnan was reported to WHO.


Also read: Trust science, not scientists, is the lesson from doubt over Wuhan wet market theory: Fukuyama


The Yunnan link

Yunnan is an important landmark in the story of the provenance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health in October 2020, Monali Rahalkar and Rahul Bahulikar of the MACS Agharkar Research Institute and BAIF Development Research Foundation, respectively, wrote: “It was found that RaTG13/CoV4991 was collected from Tongguan mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan, China, in 2013. Surprisingly, the same mineshaft was also associated with a severe pneumonia-like illness in miners in 2012 killing three of the six miners. A Master’s thesis (in the Chinese language) was found on the cnki.net website which described in detail the severe illness in miners. The thesis concluded that a SARS-like CoV originating from Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus) was the predicted causative agent. The cases were remotely monitored by a prominent pulmonologist in China. Retrospective analysis of the pneumonia cases shows striking similarities with COVID-19.”

RATG13, a coronavirus found in bats in Mojiang, Yunnan province, is supposed to be the closest known relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It was collected from the faeces of the horseshoe bat there in 2013. One of the differences between RATG13 and SARS-CoV-2 is the furin cleavage site.

While the Frontiers paper is not a part of the DRASTIC papers, its authors are among its 24 detectives.

“How is it possible that the pandemic prevention workflow for discovering a novel SARS virus in a cave where miners got ill with a SARS-like pneumonia was to throw the virus in a freezer until a pandemic from a closely related virus breaks out? Why has the exact, detailed list of all WIV samples, isolates, etc. as well as the Wuhan University and the Hubei CDC samples and isolates not been shared with the WHO or other countries?” asks the DRASTIC paper.

In conclusion, they allege that there is a clear pattern of obfuscation and lack of transparency concerning the provenance of RaTG13, as well as its sequence data.

“The authors also call on the Wuhan Institute of Virology to immediately share all their data on the 7896 clade and for EcoHealth Alliance to cooperate fully with any investigation into related sequences and databases. This is especially important since the study identifying RaTG13 was partially supported by a USNIAID grant: R01AI110964 (Ge et al., 2016), meaning that US taxpayers’ money was used for collecting and studying coronavirus samples by the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” they wrote in the second part of a series on why questions about the origin of the virus continue to linger.

“It is also recommended that researchers working for EcoHealth Alliance, such as Peter Daszak, Jonathan Epstein, Kevin Olival, William Karesh, Tracy Goldstein, Alice Latinne, be invited to answer questions about their collaboration with WIV and asked to hand over their digital devices for inspection and analysis by forensic experts,” they wrote.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)


Also read: Before Wuhan row, how US-China created SARS-like virus in 2015 to show its pandemic potential


 

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