On the trail of COVID-19 origins - GulfToday

On the trail of COVID-19 origins


Chinese guards stand alert in front of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Wuhan is widely believed to be the origin city of the COVID-19 virus.

Ever since the COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan in China towards the end of December, 2019, and spread like a wildfire to the rest of the world in a matter of weeks, there have been political whispers that this was no ordinary pandemic, and that it carried the ominous signs of biological warfare. Given the ideological polarisation between communist China and democratic west, a replay in a different of the ideological confrontation between communist Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s through 1970s, the rumours were rife that China had been experimenting with some sort of biological weaponry. Initially, there were no strong reasons for believing in this conspiracy theory excepting the suspicion that the pandemic broke out much earlier than December 2019 and that the Chinese authorities did not share the information. There was also the complaint that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had played into China’s hands, and that the world organisation had delayed in declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Meanwhile, the intensity and tenacity of the virus which showed no signs of weakening after millions and in the earlier stages did not even show signs of mutation – all the early genome sequences revealed the Wuhan fingerprint – had raised the suspicion that this was no natural virus, and that it must have leaked from a virology laboratory in China, which the Chinese officials did not acknowledge. Nicholas Wade, a British science writer and The New York Times science editor, wrote a detailed piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists trying to go behind the headlines and understand the complex nature of the virus and the scientific information we have about. In the process he traced the research going on the coronavirus, and gave a hint that some of the virology research laboratories in the United States and in China could have been working more toxic mutation of the virus than is existent to help finding a matching medical antidote to it.

He described this phenomenon as ‘gain of function’, a phrase used to describe the mutation of the virus into a toxic form. There was also the hint that some of the dangerous research involved in this could have been carried out in Chinese labs because of the strict protocols in the American labs. Of course, there was no hard evidence to prove this and Wade only suggested the possibility of it.

But the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to bother people and researchers all over the world because China seems to have contained it successfully while other countries paid a heavy price in the number of infected and the number of people who died of it.

There was a clamour to find out the truth as to how it started. The WHO, which was seen as being soft on China, had set up a team along with that of China’s to study the initial conditions in Wuhan. In the August 26 issue of British scientific journal Nature, members of the WHO team that went to China in March to inquire into the beginnings of COVID-19 have written the need for a second phase of the inquiry, and confessed that there was no conclusive evidence either about a laboratory leak or it spreading from an animal to human beings in Wuhan’s wet markets. But there has been unhappiness that despite positive collaboration between the WHO and Chinese teams, the Chinese were not fully forthcoming. The intelligence inquiry ordered by American President Joe Biden had come to the same conclusion that it is difficult to pin down the actual reason for the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The non-classified part of the report was made public on August 27. National Intelligence Director Avril Haines had indicated that the report would be inconclusive.

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