Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 12 July 2020

WHO inquiry won’t visit Wuhan lab

The level four biosafety (P4) laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Picture: AFP
The level four biosafety (P4) laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Picture: AFP
  • By Peter Conradi
  • 2 hours ago 
The World Health Organisation is under fire from scientists over indications that its planned mission to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19 will not visit a secretive laboratory that researches coronaviruses in Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak.
Questions about the activities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a renowned centre of coronavirus expertise, were raised by The Sunday Times last week.
It revealed that a potentially deadly coronavirus that is the world’s closest known relative to COVID-19 was analysed by scientists from the institute after traces of it were found in an abandoned copper mine in 2013 in southern China. The alarm was raised after six workers called in to clear bat faeces from the mine fell ill with a mysterious respiratory disease; three of them died.
  • Max Maddison, Imogen Reid
Yet to the dismay of some scientists the WHO indicated that its mission, being prepared by two of its experts who flew to Beijing last week, would look only at “the zoonotic source” of the outbreak. This was an implicit acceptance of China’s preferred theory that the virus jumped naturally from animals to humans from part of a market in Wuhan selling exotic animals for meat.
“An inquiry that presupposes – without evidence — that the virus entered humans through a natural zoonotic spillover, and that fails to address the alternative possibility that the virus entered humans through a laboratory accident, will have no credibility,” said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“To have any credibility and any value, an investigation must address the possibility that the virus entered humans through a laboratory accident and must also address the further possibility that the ability of the virus to infect humans was enhanced through laboratory manipulation — ‘gain-of-function research of concern’.”
Professor Ebright’s concerns were echoed by Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor of endocrinology at Flinders University in Adelaide, who is leading Australia’s first human trials of a vaccine against COVID-19.
Professor Petrovsky said the WHO delegation had “plenty” of questions to ask its Chinese opposite numbers, especially relating to samples of a virus known as RaTG13 — a 96.2 per cent match to COVID-19. In February, Shi Zhengli, known as “Bat Woman” and who heads the Wuhan institute’s Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, had revealed in a paper in Nature that samples of the virus were being stored there.
“Was any attempt made to clone RaTG13 virus — were any gene sequences from presumed RaTG13 virus ever synthesised? If so, where and when?” Professor Petrovsky asked. “What was done with these cloned sequences?”
Peter Daszak, a US-based zoologist, who has worked for 15 years with a team headed by Dr Shi, confirmed to Insight that this was the same virus found in the mine, even though its name had been changed from RaBtCoV/4991.
Professor Petrovsky said the WHO mission should ask the laboratory to explain its decision to alter the name of the virus — attributed by Dr Daszak to a change in the coding system. It should also ask to review the medical record of the workers infected in the mine.
The Chinese government has bristled at suggestions its scientists could have been involved — even inadvertently — in the creation or spread of the virus.
Early in the pandemic China had pinned the blame on Wuhan’s market but has provided no further confirmation. It has since emerged that four of the first five cases confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 had no link to the market.
US President Donald Trump has been among those who have suggested a link to the Wuhan institute — a claim dismissed by Wang Yanyi, its director, as “pure fabrication”. Mr Trump claims “China has total control over the World Health Organisation” and his administration formally notified congress last week that it was making good on its threat to leave the WHO.
Apparently in the light of such sensitivities, the WHO has released few details about the mission by its two experts — an epidemiologist and an animal health specialist — who were due to hold initial meetings in Beijing this weekend. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokeswoman, said the WHO would identify “what we need to know”, going through available material and “fine it down to what we can get … to get the maximum benefit out of this”.
It is not yet clear how large the full mission will be and which sites it will be allowed to visit by China’s notoriously secretive authorities.
The Sunday Times

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