The Pandemic’s Origins: An Open Investigation

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, centre right, standing alongside the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres, centre left, at a press conference for COVID-19.

Just last month, President Biden ordered American intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic, giving government investigators 90 days to report back with their findings. This was a consequence of there being skepticism for the verdict presented in the recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the origins of COVID, which deemed that the virus being a result of a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” This stirred many to proclaim that the lab-leak theory had been too hastily dismissed, especially when it had been discussed in only about four pages of a 313-page report.

Of those who had urged there be a more in-depth review of the “lab-leak theory” was the Director-General of the World Health Organization himself, Tedros Adhanom which had no doubt caused it to hold new precedence. What was deemed an absurd conspiracy theory not too long ago is now a plausibility that can no longer be ignored by scientists and is steadily gaining traction in mainstream media.

Facebook is no longer treating the lab-leak theory as misinformation due to pressure from the public, despite the WHO deeming the theory“extremely unlikely.” Does this attest to the growing mistrust the public harbours towards the UN?

Paradigm Shift

     One outcome of this ordeal was a letter a group of scientists wrote to Science magazine regarding the matter, which likely intensified attention for the theory from various media outlets. This letter discussed the importance of remaining open-minded to all possible theories as to the origins of the coronavirus due to there presently being too little evidence to draw a concrete conclusion. Apparently, the authors of this letter were urging for the case to be reopened and were bold enough to display their concerns on a public platform, consequently involving it. After all, this is a matter of public knowledge, and the public had a right to know that the scientific consensus was not as solid as once thought.

Consequently, Facebook reacted to pressure from employees and users alike causing it to stop banning posts that claimed that the coronavirus was engineered. This action was justified by noting that there is not enough evidence to dismiss the claim, even though there are worries that this move will make conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation commonplace. Nonetheless, this marks a change in attitude among the public, as the theory loses the eccentricity that was previously associated with it.

Man-Made or Not?

    Though the lab-leak theory is gaining momentum in the mainstream, it does not really seem viable. As of yet, there is still no concrete evidence for the theory, and the only factor keeping it on the table is the fact that there is no evidence to rule it out, on top of the unusual human affinity the virus displays. What does give the theory weight is the fact that none of the animals found at the Huanan seafood market were found to have an ancestor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and that the “missing link” between bats and humans had not yet been found. After an extensive search over many months, having ruled out minks, ferrets, pangolins and many other animals as the likely intermediary species, the task seemed almost fruitless rendering no real conclusion to draw.

The horseshoe bat, species Rhinolophus, is one of the species of bats
 that is thought to harbour the closest known ancestors of the coronavirus.

Upon comparison, though, the zoonotic-transfer theory, which connotes natural spillover from an animal source, does seem to have a more concrete basis despite the attention the opposing theory seems to be attracting. Bats were indeed a reservoir for COVID, in addition, the nearest known relatives for SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats in China, more specifically, in horseshoe bats in Yunnan province, which has a history of people falling ill with COVID-like symptoms after entering bat caves.

    Though there is some convincing evidence that the virus came from a zoonotic spillover, it is still not known how a virus strain would travel from bats in Yunnan province in Southeastern China to people in Wuhan. This is where the lab leak theory would come in. It is thought that subsequent to many cases of illnesses linked to bat caves in Yunnan, it was up to the Wuhan Institute of Virology along with many similar institutions to study the family of SARS viruses found among the patients and infectious bats alike. Coincidentally, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had one of the largest collections of bat coronaviruses, which does complicate things. The caveat is that it is not likely that the lab at Wuhan would possess those particular strains of viruses that would cause the pandemic, no matter how large the catalogue it boasted was.

    What is particularly bizarre about the SARS-CoV-2 virus is that it has only been found among humans despite bats acting as its reservoir. Moreover, the virus can mimic simple proteins naturally found in humans, as well as a high affinity to bind with a particular human enzyme. All this cannot be easily explained away by natural zoonotic transfer. After laying all the information down it becomes more understandable as to why many, including those with influence, would afford leniency to the idea that COVID had originated from a lab. No one is sure of COVID’s origin, and it is likely that we will not for years to come.

Mistrust Among Nations

    It is precisely the uncertainty in its origins that politicizes the pandemic; critics of the WHO report attributed the conclusions drawn by it to either obfuscation or secrecy. The main criticism against China concerning the WHO report was that not enough data had been provided by China to come to a complete and solid conclusion. Most damagingly, the researchers involved in producing the findings of the WHO report found it challenging to obtain the data they needed despite there being reasonable communication with China. Moreover, though the Wuhan Institute of Virology is not deemed a likely source for the SARS-CoV-2, guards are standing in front of it presumably guarding it against journalists.

It must be asked, why is China partaking in this behaviour if it has nothing to hide?

    Throughout the pandemic, China had been observed with a critical and distrusting eye especially by Trump’s administration who had championed the lab leak theory, to the extent of starting an investigation to look into it. Ever since then, nearly everyone had their suspicions that China might have been hiding something and that the pandemic was more than it seemed.

    What ensued was a wave of derision towards members of the Asian diaspora as hate crimes against them surged. Despite there being Chinese whistleblowers who had issued warnings despite the risk to their reputations, the Chinese would endure disdain. It is not over yet, as China has a long way to go before being acquitted and subsequently relieved of the accusatory gaze of the world stage.

Posters in Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia commemorate the late Dr. Li Wenliang who had warned some of his friends of a deadly SARS outbreak that would later be known as the current pandemic.

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