Increasing public support in the world’s scientific community Fully explore the possibilities The coronavirus may come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, causing a global outbreak, causing more than 3.7 million deaths worldwide.
After the first case of COVID-19, a disease caused by a virus, was confirmed in a Chinese city in December 2019, the laboratory leak theory was basically marginalized in public scientific discourse at the beginning of the outbreak.
Observers said that in the next few months, this hypothesis was harmfully intertwined with the inflammatory anti-China rhetoric of the former US President Donald Trump’s administration and the xenophobic framework for the pandemic, which caused obvious notice in the scientific community Chilling effect.
J Stephen Morrison, director of the Center for Global Health Policy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera: “The question of whether the laboratory accident is the origin is in a difficult situation in this highly politicized context.”
“When Trump made this issue part of the anti-China and anti-Asia movement, people didn’t want to be associated with it. So they kept their distance.”
After a global health study commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Wuhan, public support for a comprehensive study of the theory has increased significantly. Mocked Some Western powers and famous scientists think it is seriously inadequate and rely on data compiled by Chinese officials.
The February report stated that the virus was “very likely” to emerge through natural zoonotic disease or animal-to-human transmission, and it was concluded that the theory that it accidentally leaked from the laboratory was “extremely unlikely.” China has repeatedly denied that the laboratory is responsible for the leaked virus.
Virologists and scientists in related fields admit that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan and support a comprehensive and transparent investigation, but their views on the two situations are very different.
Many people believe that the theory that the outbreak started through animal-to-human transmission is still more likely. Others stated that there is no direct evidence that one situation is more likely than another. A further argument is whether the sequence of the viral genome excludes human manipulation in the laboratory.
Nonetheless, recent shifts in views include Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S. government, who Be fired The idea is that science “strongly shows” that viruses are naturally occurring.
Recently, he said he “does not believe” that the virus did not emerge from a laboratory in Wuhan, and supports further investigations.
Last week, in a rare Public statement President Joe Biden detailed the thinking of the US intelligence community and called for further investigations. He said that these agencies have “merged around two possible scenarios”-zoonotic transfers and accidental leaks in Wuhan laboratories.
“Although two elements in the (intelligence community) tend to be in the former situation (zoonosis), and one in the latter situation (laboratory leaks)-each has low or medium confidence- But most elements do not believe that there is enough information to assess that one is more likely than the other,” the statement said, which directly quoted part of an intelligence report that has not yet been publicly released.
On May 30, the “Sunday Times” reported that British intelligence officials had changed their views on the accidental leakage of the Wuhan laboratory, calling it “feasible.”
‘Both are still feasible’
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said that since the virus’s genome sequence was first released in January 2020, there has been little change in scientific evidence.
He said, “There is no reliable basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural accident (animal versus human) hypothesis and the laboratory accident hypothesis.”
“In particular, all scientific data related to the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence and COVID-19 epidemiology are also consistent with the origin of natural accidents or laboratory accidents,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera. “This has been very clear in January 2020, and it has been very clear at every point in time from January 2020 to the present.”
Ebright is one of 21 international scientists who explained what a comprehensive “interdisciplinary” survey in Wuhan should look like. Open the envelope In March, he said that the origin of the coronavirus “can only be answered through forensic investigation, not scientific speculation.”
At the same time, several scientists stated that they still believe that the virus is unlikely to be manipulated by humans before the outbreak. Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University, was part of a March 2020 study that indicated that the virus is more likely to come from nature. He told the National Public Radio (NPR) in late May. ), he believes that the evidence still supports these findings to a large extent.
“I am more convinced than ever that this is a natural virus,” he told the news organization.
On May 14, 18 top biologists studied the pandemic Published a letter In the journal “Science”, it called for further investigation, saying that “unexpected laboratory release and zoonotic spillage are still feasible.”
Experts criticized the investigation commissioned by the World Health Organization, saying that the two theories were not “balanced consideration”, and pointed out that only four of the 313 pages of the report involved the possibility of laboratory accidents.
Others cited what they said were circumstantial evidence supporting any theory.
In the context of the theory of zoonotic diseases, virologists have long noticed that the wild animal market in Wuhan, where a variety of exotic animals are sold at close range, will be an ideal place for zoonotic diseases to overflow. The causes of past coronavirus outbreaks include the SARS and MERS coronaviruses that caused previous outbreaks. It can take years to find the species responsible for spreading these viruses.
At the same time, Shi Zhengli, a well-known scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote in a statement published in the journal Science in July last year that the virus is unlikely to emerge from her laboratory, saying that her team “has never been in contact with it. Or have studied viruses”. This virus” and all coronavirus antibody tests were negative. However, she pointed out at the time that the laboratory had not yet sequenced the genome of all virus samples it had collected.
To support the accidental laboratory leak theory, observers have Pointing Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC) conducted extensive research on the new bat virus, noting that the former is known to have the closest known virus to the coronavirus that caused the current outbreak; arguing that laboratory safety standards exist Reasonable question; and noted that the Chinese authorities suppressed information throughout the outbreak.
Some intelligence officials also It is said that Question the transparency of the so-called “function gain” research conducted in China, which may involve deliberately increasing the spread of the virus to study how it has evolved.
May 23, Wall Street Journal report Three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology developed COVID-19-like symptoms in November 2019 and required hospitalization. Skeptics point out that these diseases occur during the regular flu season.
On Thursday, Fauci called on China to publish the medical records of these researchers.
Nevertheless, Jon Lieber, the US managing director of the political risk consultancy Eurasian Group, said that the biggest change surrounding the possibility of accepting laboratory leaks is that the US government has changed, saying that Trump’s lack of credibility is critical to people. Produced a chilling effect. Scientists and fall into the “blind spots and prejudices of the media janitor”.
“This includes banning multiple accounts from discussing the matter on Twitter and Facebook or marking people as social media that spread misinformation,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think the real failure of the scientific community, the media, and others is that they don’t even take this seriously because they don’t like messengers.”
Last week, a Facebook spokesperson stated that the company will “no longer remove the claims from our apps that COVID-19 is artificial.” The spokesperson said that the decision was made “based on ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and consultations with public health experts.”
However, Leiber said that the change in opinion should not be seen as a defense of the Trump administration.
“This is a complete failure for the Trump White House,” he said. “If they have any credibility, if they have the ability to convince anyone to believe anything, they can expose it as a legitimate origin story a year ago.”
Foresight director of the Atlantic Council, Mathew Burrows, stated that for Biden, the decision to issue a statement calling for further investigation was for domestic purposes-not to appear “weak to China” and to prevent Republican criticism from entering 2022. The mid-term congressional elections, strategy and risk initiatives.
He said that at the same time, the statement issued during the World Health Assembly has once again attracted the attention of Beijing and the World Health Organization.
“The United States is once again a participant in the World Health Organization,” Burrows added. “So I think they want to strengthen the WHO and don’t give in too much to China.”