POST 166. June 3, 2020. CORONAVIRUS. “President Biden said Wednesday that he has asked intelligence agencies to double down on their efforts to investigate whether the coronavirus originated from human contact with an animal or in an laboratory in China, saying there is not “sufficient information” to assess whether one is more likely than the other.”

 “A 41-year-old man in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu has been confirmed as the first human case of infection with a rare strain of bird flu known as H10N3, Beijing’s National Health Commission (NHC) said on Tuesday.”

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“Like the pandemic itself, the attention given to the origin of Covid-19 has come in waves. When SARS-CoV-2 first started to spread, there were immediate questions about how this virus infected humans for the first time.

Based on existing knowledge of other coronaviruses, most scientists backed the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 was spread through “natural spillover” — meaning that a virus was able to overcome the usual hurdles that prevent it from transmitting from one species to another (in this case, humans). The first confirmed cases of what we now know as Covid-19 were initially linked to markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where animals are sold both dead and alive.

There was also a competing theory: That the virus spread following an accidental release from a lab — specifically, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers study multiple strains of coronaviruses. Proponents of this explanation, including Trump, argue that it’s too much of a coincidence that the virus was first detected in markets in the same city that hosts a lab that studied  the same type of virus. But, as the New York Times reports, “Wuhan is an urban center larger than New York City” with animal-market traffic from throughout China and the rest of the world — so it’s entirely possible that it is a coincidence.” (I) 

The 120-page (WHO) report, released on March 30, 2021, was inconclusive about the origins of the virus. But of four scenarios, it said it is “likely to very likely” the virus spread from an animal to an intermediate host to humans. The report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” although it did not study this possibility enough. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghenreyesus said “as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table”. Although the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, he said “this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy”.

The report caused concerns among most countries. The US and 13 other countries issued a statement at the World Health Assembly “expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent ,science-based, and independent process for in evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origins in the future”. EU member states said there was a “need to further work to study the origins of the virus and its route of introduction to the human population”.

The 18 scientists who wrote to Science also criticised the WHO report for weighing on the side of a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host without having studied the lab leak possibility adequately.” (J)

“In a statement, Mr. Biden made it clear that the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had not yet reached a consensus on how the virus, which prompted a pandemic and has killed almost 600,000 Americans, originated in China. He directed them to report back to him in 90 days….

“I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion,” the president said.

The president had asked in March for an internal assessment of the virus’s origins, which was delivered to him two weeks ago in his Presidential Daily Brief of intelligence, according to a senior White House official and an administration official. That started a discussion, the officials said, about declassifying some of the findings and having intelligence officials issue a public statement.

The statement — which described the lack of consensus among intelligence agencies — was ready this week, but Mr. Biden felt it would not help clarify the issue for the public, according to the senior official. And on Tuesday, China took a hard line against cooperating with the W.H.O. on further inquiries, which prompted Mr. Biden to press for a more robust United States investigation, the official said…

There was clear evidence for the coronavirus having emerged naturally through the recombination of genetic material from different bat coronaviruses, said Dr. Robert Garry, a virologist at the Tulane University School of Medicine. The data so far bears the hallmarks of natural recombination, he said, and no signs of human intervention.

“The pieces are out there,” Dr. Garry said. “These viruses mix bits and pieces all the time.”..

“It is most likely that this is a virus that arose naturally, but we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident,” Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told senators on Wednesday…

But the March report by the group of W.H.O.-chosen experts in collaboration with Chinese scientists, dismissing the possibility of a lab leak as “extremely unlikely,” compelled some scientists to speak out.

“When I read that, I was very frustrated,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. Along with Professor Lipsitch, she signed a letter published in the journal Science this month saying that there was not enough evidence to decide whether a natural origin or an accidental laboratory leak caused the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s really an unanswered question that really needs more rigorous investigation,” Dr. Iwasaki added.

Uncertainty remains about the origins of the virus, which continues to cause havoc in countries like India. India’s official coronavirus statistics report about 27 million cases and over 300,000 deaths as of Tuesday.

From the earliest weeks of the outbreak, the Chinese government has worked to delay, deflect or block independent investigation of the virus’s origins.” (C)

“A US intelligence report found that several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized, a new detail about the severity of their symptoms. It’s not clear the researchers contracted Covid-19 and the lab strongly denied the report, calling it a lie to push the so-called lab-leak theory for the disease origin.

Scientists affiliated with the institute have previously said the institute did not come into contact with Covid-19 until December 30…

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it would have been a “dereliction of duty” not to fund earlier coronavirus research in bats in China.

“You don’t want to study bats in Fairfax County, Virginia, to find out what the animal-human interface is that might lead to a jumping of species,” Fauci said, adding the US had to go “where the action is.”

Separately, at the White House, Fauci said many scientists still believe the disease occurred naturally, but it’s also imperative to get to the bottom of it with more investigation.

An adviser for the World Health Organization, Jamie Metzl, said the lab-leak theory is possible while scientists were “poking and prodding and studying” viruses with the good intention of developing vaccines.

“Then I believe what possibly happened was there was an accidental leak followed by a criminal cover-up,” said Metzl, who served in the Clinton administration in the US Department of State and is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, also said this week he is not convinced the disease occurred naturally and pushed for more investigation…

Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer it was unlikely the Wuhan lab had manipulated the virus to make it more contagious using controversial gain of function research — but we’ve got to find out.

While Chinese authorities have stayed unwilling to allow such an open investigation, Offit said the world needs it in order to guard against another pandemic.

“What I do know is they have to allow this,” Offit said. “This is now the third pandemic strain that has raised its head in the last 20 years. The first was SARS 1, the second was MERS. I think that we can assume that we’re not done with this.””  (D)

“Consensus among top officials in the Biden administration is that the pandemic originated in one of two ways: the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal; or, from a laboratory accident — diverging from the WHO-led team’s report this spring, which ruled the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely.”..

“We know way too little about the who, what, where, when, how and why surrounding COVID-19 origins,” David Asher, a former State Department official who led the department’s investigation into the pandemic’s origins under the Trump administration, said at a private briefing to congressional offices this week obtained by ABC News. “I compare it to a Dali painting where the clocks have melted but time has not stood still.”

The long-awaited March WHO-led report came to no firm conclusions on COVID-19’s origins. Critics argued the Chinese government’s resistance to transparency muzzled a fair and independent investigation.

A WHO spokesperson said the group is “reviewing the recommendations” from the report, and preparing for the next phase of study.

But the WHO has a limited mandate, with no multilateral regulatory or subpoena power — leaving the global community to strategize.

“If China blocks that then the rest of the world will have no choice but to take an alternative route,” Metzl said.

There’s a delicate balance in the forensic work ahead, experts say.

“The availability of certain data sources might go away, telling antibodies for the virus can wane,” said Dr. John Brownstein, the Harvard Medical School professor who led the satellite research.

“But,” Brownstein, an ABC News contributor, added, “we’re now empowered with a new understanding of the virus — and we can leverage that context as we look back.”” (F)

“The intelligence community’s push to uncover the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has largely relied on traditional intelligence-gathering tools up until now, but President Joe Biden’s 90-day “redoubled” effort is intended in part to elevate scientific analysis.

The effort will bring in the National Labs, a collection of 17 elite research facilities under the Energy Department, “because of their ability to crunch massive amounts of data,” a White House official told CNN.

What those “massive amounts of data” contain remains unclear, although multiple sources tell CNN it is almost certainly not a new tranche of intelligence information.

“There is really no new collection that the intelligence community can do [on the origin question] that I’m aware of,” said one US official.

But officials might not need to collect anything new to achieve a breakthrough. They may just need the right tools to more thoroughly analyze the mountains of intercepted communications and other signals intelligence they already have. The intelligence community routinely picks up far more raw intelligence than its analysts can comb through — “it is a perennial challenge that we collect more than we have analysts to process,” said one person familiar with the intelligence — suggesting that the National Labs’ supercomputers may be used to help sift through that data.

Even so, current and former intelligence officials have long been suspicious that traditional intelligence-gathering tools were going to uncover the origins of the pandemic. The answer, many suggest, is more likely to come from the academic community — within or without government — which has spent the last year carefully studying the structure of the virus to determine if it escaped from a lab or originated naturally in the wild.

Now, as the lab leak theory has begun to gain more mainstream acceptance in the academic community and pressure has risen on Capitol Hill to explore that possibility, the Biden administration has indicated that it wants to lean more heavily on traditional science to help come up with an answer.

“We want the science to be a big part of this,” the White House official said. “We are going to use the full resources of our intelligence and scientific community to try to get to the bottom of this.”

That may mean simply leveraging sophisticated data science tools to sift through reams of intercepted intelligence. But it may also mean empowering the traditional lab scientists within the intelligence community…

Up until now, one source familiar with the matter said, the intelligence community has been relying very heavily on intercepts to try to figure out the origins of the pandemic that to date has killed more than 3.5 million people worldwide.”  (G)

“Pathogens escape from institutions working on them with depressing frequency. The last known death from smallpox was the result of a laboratory leak in Britain in 1978. sars-cov-1, the virus which causes sars, escaped from labs twice as it spread round the world in 2003, once in Singapore and once in Taiwan; it leaked out of a Beijing lab on two separate occasions in 2004. In December 2019 more than 100 students and staff at two agricultural research centres in Lanzhou were struck with an outbreak of brucellosis, a bacterial disease usually caught from livestock.

Most alarmingly, the h1n1 strain of influenza which started spreading around the world in 1977 is now known to have been released from a north-east Asian lab—possibly in China, possibly in Russia. Some Western observers suspected this at the time, but they made little fuss about it, perhaps afraid that doing so would lead to China and/or Russia pulling out of international flu-surveillance efforts, or spark a backlash against virology…

What of evidence from the spread of the disease? According to the Guardian, a British newspaper, when the who sent scientist Peter Ben Embarek to China in July 2020 his subsequent report to the agency stated that the Chinese had done “little…in terms of epidemiological investigations around Wuhan since January 2020”. Some infer that China is not looking because it knows, or perhaps just fears, the answer…

The evidence to date shows that the circumstantial assumptions on which the idea is based—that there was coronavirus research and that it could have leaked—are true; it does not provide direct insight into the outbreak proper. As Ralph Baric, an American researcher who helped set up the wiv’s coronavirus work, told the Wall Street Journal, “more investigation and transparency are needed to define the origin”; he himself continues to see zoonotic spillover as the more likely possibility.

Ideally, China would help such investigations unearth new evidence. That can hardly be counted on. It is possible that the dogged work of America’s intelligence services may turn up compelling arguments for or against regardless, or that the many scientists poring over details of the virus’s genome and structure may come up with something. But there is no guarantee that the question will be solved soon.

For observers such as Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, the uncertainty underlines the need for more discussion about the risks that the world is willing to take in the name of science. More facilities for pathogen research are being built around the world, and even the most sophisticated biosecurity measures may sometimes leak.

That means the research needs to be carried out in ways that allow scrutiny and accountability, that the knowledge sought needs to be worth the risks, and that that knowledge, once gained, should be used and made useful. There is no compelling evidence that the presence of the wiv in the city where the covid-19 pandemic began was anything other than a coincidence. But neither is there evidence that the wiv’s coronavirus research, justified in the name of pandemic preparedness, did anything to lessen this pandemic’s toll.” (H)

“At the end of this process, I would not be surprised if we did not know much more than we know now,” said W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University who was one of the first U.S. scientists to visit China in early 2020 and consult with public health authorities there…

“There was no evidence to suggest this had been weaponized,” Dr. Lipkin said. “I haven’t changed my view on that.”..

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane Medical School and a co-author of Dr. Lipkin’s letter, observed that Chinese scientists would have to have collected SARS-CoV-2 and then grown it in a colony of cells, but somehow never publish any details of it even as they published reports on other coronaviruses for years.

“It makes no sense to me. Why did they hold onto the virus?” Dr. Garry said…

Speaking recently to the former New York Times journalist Donald McNeil Jr., Dr. Lipkin said he was dismayed to learn of two coronavirus studies from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that had been carried out with only a modest level of safety measures, known as BSL-2.

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Lipkin said this fact wasn’t proof in itself that SARS-CoV-2 spread from the lab. “But it certainly does raise the possibility that must be considered,” he said.

A BSL-2 level of research would also add to the difficulty researchers will face trying to pin down clear evidence that a coronavirus infected the staff. At higher levels of security, staff regularly give blood samples that can be studied later for genetic material from viruses and antibodies against them. There may be no such record for SARS-CoV-2.

A number of researchers remain unpersuaded by the possibility of a lab leak. “This pathway remains the least likely of all for the origin of COVID-19,” said Peter Daszak, a virologist at EcoHealth Alliance who has worked frequently with the Wuhan virologists.

“On the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence that these viruses originate in wildlife, and have previously and repeatedly infected people who are highly exposed to these animals, work in the wildlife trade or in wildlife farms and markets,” Dr. Daszak said.

Earlier this month, Dr. Garry of Tulane argued that the genetic variations in early cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan could be explained by wild animals being brought to animal markets in the city. “If you suppose that the viruses came in through the wildlife trade, then it’s pretty simple and straightforward,” he said.

Even if SARS-CoV-2 jumped from bats or other animals to humans outside of a lab, as Dr. Garry suspects, it will be hard to find airtight proof for that pathway. When animals die, they take their viruses with them.

While scientists have fairly good evidence for how two coronaviruses — the cause of SARS and MERS — jumped from bats to humans, the origins of the other four coronaviruses that infect humans remain a mystery.

“Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t,” Dr. Garry said. “It can take decades.” (E)

“Like most scientists, Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, continues to “favor the natural-origins hypothesis,” based on the evidence that is currently publicly available. “There’s no smoking gun saying that it either was synthetically made in the laboratory in any way, or leaked — and it’s certainly possible — but I don’t see anything that’s really compelling that makes me think that,” he explains.

In fact, Hotez, author of Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-science, says that the only way we’ll have any answers to our questions about the origins of Covid-19 “is through a pretty extensive on-the-ground investigation.” Along the same lines, Adalja — who has supported doing a thorough and independent review of the lab-leak hypothesis since the pandemic began — says that it would have a significant value from a public health standpoint.

“We still don’t understand how [SARS-CoV-2] made its way from bats into some intermediate animal, or into humans, and I think unraveling that is really important,” he explains “Once people realized the first SARS came from palm civet cats, it basically disappeared, because they started handling those animals very differently. So, from that sense, I think that there is a public health importance to understanding the origin of the virus and understanding viral emergence.” (I)

“A 41-year-old man in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu has been confirmed as the first human case of infection with a rare strain of bird flu known as H10N3, Beijing’s National Health Commission (NHC) said on Tuesday.

Many different strains of bird flu are present in China and some sporadically infect people, usually those working with poultry. There is no indication that H10N3 can spread easily in humans.

The man, a resident of the city of Zhenjiang, was hospitalized on April 28 and diagnosed with H10N3 on May 28, the health commission said. It did not give details on how the man was infected….

The World Health Organization (WHO), in a reply to Reuters in Geneva, said: “The source of the patient’s exposure to the H10N3 virus is not known at this time, and no other cases were found in emergency surveillance among the local population. At this time, there is no indication of human-to-human transmission.

“As long as avian influenza viruses circulate in poultry, sporadic infection of avian influenza in humans is not surprising, which is a vivid reminder that the threat of an influenza pandemic is persistent,” the WHO added.” (A)

“We may never be certain of the true origins of COVID-19, but we can be sure that this isn’t the last time humanity will be faced with a deadly virus. To that end, the U.S. needs to spend at least as much energy investigating how it handled — and mishandled in some cases — the pandemic once it arrived. We may not be able to stop nations or nature from letting loose deadly diseases, but we can and should do a better job responding to them.” (L)

The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins. Throughout 2020, the notion that the novel coronavirus leaked from a lab was off-limits. Those who dared to push for transparency say toxic politics and hidden agendas kept us in the dark. BY KATHERINE EBAN.