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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Miller, MD

Did COVID Escape from a Lab?

Last week we examined some of the data that supports COVID developing naturally and being bioengineering by humans. However, that doesn’t mean it might not have been something being studied in a virology lab that was then released, accidentally or otherwise.

At the beginning of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a team of international scientists to Wuhan, China, to investigate the origin of the pandemic. As most people know, Wuhan is generally accepted to have been the epicenter of the outbreak that started in December 2019. Wuhan is the capital of the Hubei Provence and has 11 million people, making it the ninth most populated city in China.

WHO’s visit there was the first of a two-part investigation with the goal of understanding the origin so that we might be better prepared to respond to the next pandemic. WHO released a report of its findings in March in which they concluded that the virus naturally developed, most likely in horseshoe bats, and most likely jumped to humans via an intermediate animal. The report further states that the possibility of the pandemic starting because of a lab accident is “extremely unlikely”, however, cannot yet be fully ruled out.

Many people continue to speculate that there may have been some sort of experimental lab involved at some point. China’s alleged unwillingness to fully cooperate with the investigation have not helped squelch concerns that they may be hiding something. This week, President Biden officially directed the US intelligence community to do its own investigation and report back to him in 90 days.

Some people have pointed out the close proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to the Huanan Seafood Market that sold various exotic live animals as food. That has led to much speculation that there might be some sort of link between the two. Subsequent research has suggested that this market was an initial super spreader at the start of the pandemic, but not the origin of it.

The WIV is the world’s leading center for the study of coronaviruses and in particular the relationship between bats and these viruses. Bats appear to be the natural reservoir from which many new strains of coronaviruses develop. WIV is a Level 4 Biosafety Laboratory (BSL-4) which is the highest level of security for a lab studying dangerous communicable diseases. WIV is China’s first and only BSL-4 lab. WIV was the first to identify that COVID was caused by a coronavirus and was the first to fully sequence the genetic code for the virus. WIV shared this information very rapidly and fully with the world in February 2020, just three months after the first cases were identified in December 2019. WIV has been applauded by many world scientists for being forthcoming and transparent throughout this pandemic thus far.

Central to this question is the fact that China did not allow the WHO scientists to fully examine the records from WIV to confirm whether or not they were studying the virus prior to the onset of the pandemic. However, the Chinese government did allow the WHO investigators to interview scientists and other employees of WIV. China’s reluctance to be fully transparent is not, in and of itself, evidence of a cover-up as the communist country has a long history of secrecy on many levels. Thus, what appears to be suspicious may simply be their way of conducting business in general. Given the tense relationship between the US and China, it doesn’t seem too surprising that they may be less than enthusiastic about cooperating.

China has countered allegations that COVID escaped from WIV by suggesting that the source may have been the US Army’s chief biological warfare lab at Fort Deitrick, Maryland. This seems a long shot as the pandemic is generally accepted to have first started in Wuhan, China. However, the burn is real as Fort Deitrick has a history of safety problems including being implicated in an accidental or intentional release of anthrax in 2001. In 2009, its activities were suspended by the CDC because of inadequate record keeping regarding what deadly diseases were being stored there. Its activity was again suspended in 2019 when the CDC determined that it was not following guidelines for appropriate decontamination of its wastewater.

As with many aspects of this pandemic, the question of the origin and China’s potential responsibility have become highly politicized. From ex-President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling it the “China flu” to President Joe Biden’s recent call for our own intelligence community investigation.

It will likely take many months if not years to fully work out the details of exactly how the virus moved from horseshoe bats to humans. However, we do not need to evoke a lab accident as an intermediary step. SARS-CoV-1 is the sister virus to the COVID virus (SARS-CoV-2). That virus caused a similar global epidemic between November 2002 and June 2003 known as SARS. While SARS never reached the levels that COVID has, we have learned much about it. We know that it started in the horseshoe bat in a cave in China about 1,000 miles away from Wuhan. That it jumped species to a small cat like animal, the civet, that is eaten as a delicacy in the region. That the virus then jumped species to humans and caused the epidemic, SARS. WIV played an important role in much of that research. It is of note that it wasn’t until 2017, fourteen years after the epidemic was over, that all of the steps in the process had been fully identified. It may take a similar length of time to answer all of the questions we now have about COVID’s origin. In the meantime, claims that WIV or some other lab played a role in the origin of the COVID pandemic remains unsubstantiated speculation.

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