As humans, we hate ambiguity and uncertainty, this mind worm of getting to the roots of everything is what fuels the study of cosmology, evolution, history, and everything around us. Today, one thing that the entire world is most ambiguous about along with desperate to know the answers is the origin of coronavirus.
But despite being a question on virology and epidemiology, researchers cannot get to the root cause of COVID19 without navigating through global politics. Putting all the politics aside, here is what we know about the lab-leak of coronavirus to date:
Origin of Cornovirus: The Hypothesis
Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, two coronavirus origin hypotheses have been under the spotlight:
- Spillover Hypothesis
- Lab-leak Hypothesis (fringe conspiracy theory)
Most of the scientists’ initial speculations of coronavirus’s superspreader event was on the spillover theory with Wuhan South China Seafood Wholesale Market being the ground zero of the outbreak. Coronavirus is originally found in bats but was not infectious to humans until November 2019. The spillover conjecture presumed a mutated coronavirus strain transferred from bats to a pangolin which then infected the first human in the seafood market of central China.
Regardless of no concrete evidence supporting the assumption, the spillover hypothesis gained the confidence of the science community because four out of five past outbreaks and pandemics were caused due to animal-to-human transmission of an infectious virus including:
- Spanish flu 1918
- Asian flu, 1957
- Hong Kong flu, 1968
- Swine flu, 2009
But, when dug deeper into the theory, no strings were found between the first coronavirus infection case and the Wuhan Seafood Market, thus eliminating a large possibility of the spillover theory being valid.
Though at the outset the lab-leak hypothesis was presumed to be just a fringe conspiracy theory, recently it has gained momentum after no ties linking the first coronavirus human infection and seafood market was found. The 1977 Russian flu originated from a lab accident and ended up killing masses globally.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in central China has been studying, experimenting, and engineering the coronavirus for years. The lab is filled with thousand of coronavirus mutation which was intently engineered to be more infectious to human.
Engineering deadly viruses is a common notion in virology, known as Gain-of-Function research. The aim of such research is it completely eradicate any chances of the viral outbreak by keenly studying every mutation of the virus. Only three labs in the entire world carry out such high-risk studies located in:
Why Is Lab-Leak Hypothesis Worth Considering?
Remote caves located in Southern China are the stamping ground of horseshoe bats and Pipistrellus abramus, the carriers of coronavirus. This is the region from where the previous SARS outbreak originated. But Wuhan is in central China, and if the virus was transmited from bats to humans, Southern China should have been the ground zero of the pandemic, not Wuhan.
At the dawn of the pandemic, American investigators collected classified intelligence showing the lack of proper security measures in the lab. The research of the lethal coronavirus-like samples was conducted in less secure laboratories. A delegation of American Researchers visited the Wuhan Lab in 2018, and wrote, “a shortage of highly trained technicians and clear protocols threatened the facility’s safe operation.”
The Wuhan lab was the global epicenter of coronavirus samples. According to Reuters, the lab had about 22,000 samples the corona sequences of which 15,000 were from bats. Shi Zhengli, popularly known as the “Bat Woman” for her decades of study on bats, head of the coronavirus study in the Wuhan lab said in an interview, “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen the Wuhan, in central China”
But, the bat women thoroughly investigated all the data and found that none of the coronavirus samples, engineered or natural were the same as COVID-19, the mutant virus infecting humans.
But rhetorical statements cut no eyes when seen in the context of facts. For the world that has suffered immensely due to the COVID outbreak, a statement by the head researcher of the project is not enough to cancel out the possibility of lab leak. A thorough investigation is necessary.
Origin of Coronavirus: A Can of Worms
The answer to the question of whether coronavirus pandemic is a result of a lab accident is, we don’t know. The evidence of both the lab-leak and spillover hypotheses are just circumstantial, leaving lots of dots to connect. But, the answer will not come by connecting dots, but by finding solid evidence verifying the origin of coronavirus.
In 2020, the very idea of a lab leak was instantly dismissed, but with the mountain of circumstantial events, it is premature to dismiss the possibility of a lab leak. In late May, US president, Joe Biden launched the investigation to find the origin of coronavirus.
Both the spillover hypothesis and the lab-leak hypotheses should be taken into serious consideration until we have some concrete data. It may have come from a lab, but it may also have been a case of animal-to-human transmission, after one and a half years of the pandemic without much evidence, it is still too soon to jump to any conclusion.