The ongoing debates on the possible origins of the pandemic are important in their own right. But, no matter where the needle eventually points the debate needs to acknowledge the dragon in the room. No objective, de-politicised discussion on the subject is feasible because of the depth and reach of China’s influence.
The debate on the pandemic’s origins can be simply stated. Over thousands of years, viruses, bacteria and parasites that infect other animals sometimes ‘spillover’ to infect humans in close contact. These spillover events most often result in fever or more severe symptoms and usually do not result in human-to-human transmission.
One reason why human-to-human transmission is rare is because of the ‘key’ that a virus uses to open the ‘lock’ on the surface of our cells. This key has good fit to open locks on other animals where it has incubated and evolved, but has a poor fit to open locks in humans, which may have similarities but also have substantial differences.
Coronaviruses can infect bats but not cause them any significant ill-effect. They grow and multiply in their host and sometimes accumulate mutations that change the genetic code of the key. This randomly happens over decades. Rarely again, you have a new key which has a good fit to the lock in the bats cells but now also has a reasonable fit to the lock on the human cell. This new virus would have never seen a human, yet has the ability to infect one, and cause human-to-human transmission. This is the way natural evolution works.
Now, should a human come in close contact — in a bat cave or a wet-market, with such a bat; they could be infected. And then transmit the disease to other humans. This is the natural ‘spillover’ hypothesis.
Scientists all over the world research viruses. Such research brings basic knowledge and also gives us the understanding and tools to fight disease. When dealing with known or likely pathogens strict safety rules are required to be observed. Lab-leaks are not unknown but are rare, compared to the huge work on infectious diseases all over the world. Yet, they are not unknown. The smallpox virus has leaked from a lab in the UK, anthrax from the US and SARS-1 may have had a few lab leaks after its natural spillover. The H1N1 virus example is unusual. In a recent piece, The Economist reiterates a lab-leak origin of an engineered virus.
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Could Sars-CoV2 have emerged from a lab-leak, through an accident? The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is one of the top virology labs in the world and research on corona viruses is intensely conducted there. One kind of research that is alleged to have been conducted is the culturing of coronavirus to enhance its infectivity to human cells or on mice containing a ‘humanised’ receptor for the virus.
There are many technical debates, in addition to those in the popular press, on the relative likelihood of the two theories being correct. The animal ‘spillover’ is like buying a winning lottery ticket in a very big lottery. A very rare event for any single person, but still, it happens (only in this case, it is a big loss and not a big win). The lab-leak is akin to rigging the lottery.
If the animal-to-human spillover is valid, then there will be animals in the wild, bats or pangolins, that harbour a virus identical to that found on the first cases in Wuhan. This has not been found yet, unlikely to be found soon and there is no indication that the Chinese are on a mission to find such an animal. We, therefore, do not have any proof of wild origin yet, and may not have one ever. The search is difficult in itself, even if it were to be conducted.
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People have tried to look at the virus’s genome sequence or the kind of experiments conducted at WIV to garner evidence for the lab-leak theory. Just as circumstantial evidence is present to support the wild spillover theory, there is circumstantial evidence to support the lab-leak theory.
Normally, the most parsimonious explanation would support a wild spillover. But, for this pandemic, WIV and China need to explain a lot. The lab-spillover can be easily ruled out if WIV opened its books to the WHO team and allowed lab-members to be interviewed. This kind of openness can easily dispel the critics, even as the difficult search for the wild animal that caused the spillover continues. Such an openness is most unlikely from China.
The dragon’s influence on US scientific research
China’s lack of openness in this matter only fuels speculation that harms research and collaboration globally on important matters of planetary security and safety. This attitude, sadly, is expected. China has also, over the past few decades steadily established a stranglehold on global research that makes this lack of openness both global and worrisome. Science and technology thrives in an atmosphere of openness, criticism, debate, and competition. The rise of the United States and Europe in the 20th century are examples. Yet, China has risen even though it is a totalitarian state. China’s rise has happened by linking its economic progress to the welcoming of high-tech industry at Faustian and predatory terms. Its stellar scientific progress has happened by investing in western scientists and institutions at extraordinary attractive levels, in a similar Faustian bargain. China has beautifully used the strengths of an open system to build a science and tech economy in the shortest possible time.
The West has been sleeping with eyes wide open as China cleverly exploited collaborative routes. This strategy has also made the global economy and global leaders in science, recipients of Chinese largesse in difficult times, unable to be objective about China. Global institutions—banks, trade bodies and health regulators— all moderate their criticism, if at all they criticise. It is not that they do not want to. They cannot. For example, the WHO has asked for a de-politicised environment so an investigation can be done fairly, it is clear that this is a futile statement.
The debate on the pandemic’s origins will play its course and the truth will out. It may well be that the wild animal spillover is what occurred. But, this pandemic starkly tells us how dangerous it is for the world to be so dependent on every aspect of the planet’s future on what one big player with a stranglehold on the global economy and technology does. A strong pushback is needed, through an alliance of open and democratic forces who are willing to take the lead. It is a long journey that will take decades to complete. But, as a Chinese saying goes, the time to start is now.