Coronavirus origin: Last month, US President Joe Biden said that he had ordered the intelligence agencies in the country to ramp up their efforts in collecting and analysing information that would help in ascertaining whether COVID-19 originated due to human contracting the virus from infected animals or whether it was a result of an accident in a laboratory. According to a report in IE, the President is scheduled to get a report on this issue within 90 days. Here’s everything you need to know about the lab leak theory surrounding the origin of the virus.
Was the virus a result of a lab leak?
Last year, former US President Donald Trump and his supporters had claimed that the pandemic was a result of a virus leak in a lab in Wuhan, which is where cases related to the virus had first been reported. However, the theory had been dismissed by people as a racist conspiracy theory being propagated by the right wing. The order by President Biden, though, has now given this theory a new lease of life.
It was found out in mid-January 2021 that the US State Department had been seriously considering this theory since September last year when the department shared a “fact sheet” merely days before former President Trump was set to step down from his post. The fact sheet consisted of information that came from open sources as well as some information that was previously not disclosed.
The report said that the fact sheet gave three main points, one of them being that Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) researchers had fallen ill and their symptoms had been similar to that of COVID-19 as well as seasonal illness. These cases, however, came forward much before the first case of the infection had been reported in December 2019. Another fact mentioned in the fact sheet was that at the WIV, experiments were being conducted with bat coronavirus RaTG13 back in 2016. This bat coronavirus has a 96.2% match with SARS-CoV-2. It also stated that RaTG13 had been isolated back in 2013 after samples had been extracted from bat excreta in a Yunan mine, in which six miners lost their lives in 2012. The last major point of the fact sheet was that the lab had been involved in classified research for the People’s Liberation Army which also included experiments with animals.
However, shortly after, reports emerged that President Biden ordered that the State Department shut down the investigation, claiming it to be a waste of resources as well as time. However, with mounting pressure, he was forced to reconsider his stance on the origin of the virus, and this increased after WHO failed to provide any conclusive answers in its own report.
The virus and Yunan mine
A report in WSJ said that the miners who had died in the Yunan mine in 2012 had found to be suffering from severe pneumonia, and they also had the same lung patches that have been found in patients suffering from coronavirus. In 2016, the WIV researchers published a study about a coronavirus strain RaBTCoV/4991, which they had identified in samples taken from as many as 276 bats. The same researchers had then published a paper in February 2020 where they described that RaTG13 had a genome sequencing match of 96.2% with the novel coronavirus.
The researchers only said that these two samples – RaBTCoV/4991 and RaTG13 – were same, after scientists globally noticed that the sample dates as well as partial genetic sequences of the samples were similar. However, they had also said that this was not the reason behind the death of the miners.
This late admission as well as contradictions in explanation by WIV researchers has brought the transparency of its data under question.
The WHO had released a report in this matter in March 2021, and it had been inconclusive about the virus’ origin. However, it stated four scenarios and said that it was “likely to very likely” that the virus had originated from an animal which had then transferred to a human, and it also said that the possibility of a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”. However, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghenreyesus said that this possibility required further investigation with the help of additional experts.
After this report was released, however, 14 countries including the US had expressed concerns regarding the report seeking further investigation into the cause of the pandemic.
President Biden’s announcement regarding this investigation had been made as the World Health Assembly met, and so far, China is the only country which has opposed this order.
Amid this, China has said that this theory is only a hype that the US had created and has counter-claimed that the virus originated from a US Army base located in Maryland. Following Biden’s announcement, the Asian country said that the US was only aiming to use the pandemic as a way to carry out stigmatisation, blame shifting as well as political manipulation.
Meanwhile, India has supported that the origin of the virus should be further investigated.
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