Checking claims of the origin of the covid-19 corona virus - Is it Wuhan Virology Institute?

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During this corona virus pandemic it’s really hard to keep track of the spread of the disease and of the infected populations, but apparently it could be even harder to keep track of the fake news that are traveling as unrestrained as the virus itself and causing, if possible, the same amount of damage.

April 9, 2020
Written by: Angelo Colella

One story in particular has met the favor of a certain part of the general public: that is, the one about an alleged "synthethic" origin of the corona virus SARS-CoV-2 which has caused the outbreak of the pandemic we are living in.

The first clarification to be made is that "corona virus" is an umbrella-term designating a whole family of viruses. The name is derived from the Latin word for "crown", "corona": if we observe viruses of this kind with an electron microscope, we can easily see that they have the distinctive shape of a crown. Not only they are responsible for various pathologies that affect farm animals among the others, but mankind is familiar with corona viruses too and we have been living together for a very long time. The corona virus that caused the pandemic is but the seventh that is known to infect the human breathing apparatus. Other corona viruses can cause, in humans, a variety of illnesses that range from the common cold to pneumonia or bronchitis.

Colorized electron imaging of a corona virus
A colorized image of an electron scan of a corona virus

This just goes to show the we as humans are no strangers to corona viruses, but some people could swear that this one is an "American" virus, developed by the USA to deliver a blow to China in order to retaliate against its economic hegemony; some others love to think that it’s instead a Chinese-manufactured bio-weapon that has clumsily been leaked from a secret laboratory and subsequently gone rogue. Other theories would not have felt complete without including Russia into the equation, as if we can attach the concept of "nationality" and all of the characteristics we find unpleasant in the other people to a virus. 

The search for the culprits is probably not ending soon, and witch-hunt of this kind is definitely not new in the Italian political landscape.

At the end of March 2020 a congressman from the Italian political party "Lega" has formally submitted a parliamentary inquiry asking Premier Giuseppe Conte, Minister of Foreigners Affairs Luigi di Maio, Minister of Health Roberto Speranza and Minister of Defense Roberto Guerini for clarifications in regards to the rumors surrounding a supposedly artificial origin of the SARS-CoV-2 at the hands of the People’s Republic of China.

As a source, the document quotes a report from "Leonardo", a TV program that covers scientific news, broadcasted on November 16th 2015 on public network RAI3: the report, citing in turn an article by the scientific journal "Nature", addressed the experiments being conducted by a group of scientists in the People's Republic of China, who were studying how to implant a protein extracted from bats into the SARS virus obtained from mice. The intended outcome would have been a super-virus, capable of affecting even the human breathing apparatus, with lethal consequences, and along with it the possibility to study its behaviour and modalities of contagion.

The Italian congressman required an investigation from the Italian Government especially to piece together the latest researches conducted by the People's Republic of China into the SARS virus, in order to verify the level of reliability of the facts reported and insisting on a possible connection of those experiments with the situation of the current pandemic. It has to be made clear, the document concludes, if the Chinese Government, while being aware of the dangers of the situation, has willingly decided not to warn the world about the risk of an outbreak of the virus, and if therefore should be considered guilty of a crime against humanity.

While this is not fake news, because the report referred to does actually exist, there is no ground to hold the Chinese Government accountable for a pandemic.

Even the author of the original report on "Leonardo" has recently denied this claim through a statement on his Facebook profile, while supporting the thesis according to which this new SARS-CoV-2 is the result of a zoonotic transfer: that is, the situation that occurs when a disease is transmitted from an animal host to a human.

Transmission electron microscope
A transmission electron microscope (Photo: Wuhan Virology Institute, China)

The scene of the crime seems to be the secret lab located in Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, and in Wuhan we can actually find the only BSL-4 (BioSafety Level-4) Laboratory existing in China, except it is not secret at all. The acronym is a code for the highest level of biosecurity, on a scale from 1 to 4,  that an enclosed laboratory facility is required to have when working with dangerous biological agents.

Its construction was approved in 2003 by the Chinese Academy of Science, and it has been designed and constructed in collaboration with French engineers, but it didn’t open until more than ten years later. In fact, the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment has certified the Wuhan laboratory as meeting the standards and criteria of a BSL-4 only in January 2017, and the Ministry of Health gave its approval many months later. The laboratory has officially opened at the beginning of January 2018 and became operative around the middle of the same month.

Therefore, if the laboratory in Wuhan has begun its researches not earlier than 2018, it cannot possible be the same laboratory whose experiment that the scientific TV program "Leonardo" covered in the 2015, because there is a gap of almost three full years.

Wuhan Virology Instiute bird's eye view
An aerial view of Wuhan Virology Institute, China

Also, on March, 17th 2020 the scientific journal "Nature" itself has published an article on its website to present the current state of the studies concerning the SARS-CoV-2 and express its own conclusions in a way that can be no longer misinterpreted.

The article is very detailed in analyzing the virus' biological data, especially the optimized functionality of the so-called "spike" proteins. These proteins are situated on the exterior of the virus and are used by the virus to create a bond with the human ACE2 receptors, that regulate blood pressure, and it is this bond that eventually causes the infection. This feature is so sophisticated that it’s highly unlikely to have been the result of bioengineering.

Wuhan Virology Institute entrance
China Academy of Science - Wuhan Virology Institute main entrance (Photo: same)

Instead, the article goes on with two alternatives, but more plausible, scenarios that could have led to such an effective and vicious version of the virus. Both the scenarios suggest a natural evolution of the virus without seeing it as too far-fetched.

In the first hypothesis, this could have occurred in an animal host before the zoonotic transfer: basically, a mutated version of the virus developed in an animal and later it started attacking the man.

Many of the early cases of people infected by SARS-CoV-19 were, in one way or another, linked to the Huanan market in Wuhan, a live animal and seafood market that is now considered to be one possible epicenter of the corona virus pandemic and closed on January, 1st 2020.

Wuhan Huanan Seafood wholesale market
Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, China

Amongst the animals that were being sold there were bats and pangolins, both of which can be infected by a corona virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2, so it’s possible that the mutation occurred in bats or pangolins first and then reached humans.

In the second scenario, "Nature" suggests that the natural selection of the virus may have occurred after the zoonotic transfer: the SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged as it is today by self-adaptation while it was being transmitted, undetected and unimpeded, from one person to another.

All the genes of the SARS-CoV-2, can reasonably conclude the article, derive from a progenitor that had them all, and so the SARS-CoV-2 is more likely to be the result of a natural adaptive process, rather than being a purposefully manipulated virus.

Corona virus graphic in blue color
Artist's redention of corona virus

This concept had already been strongly stressed by the 27 scientists subscribing to an article that was published, on February, 19th 2020, on the website of the leading international medical journal "Lancet" in support of the Chinese scientists. Pretending that the contrary is true, when there is no basis to state that, cannot be considered the same as raising reasonable doubt. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the whole scientific community has been constantly sharing every data that can be useful to contrast the virus, and every advancement that is being made towards the development of a vaccine is a communal progress. We should keep in mind that information that generates mistrust is never harmless: it can influence the perception that countries have of one another, and it can jeopardize our common efforts.

Author Angelo Colella is a professional translator fluent in Italian, English and French, you can reach him here.


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