Bioweapon or Not, that is the Question By Brian Simpson

    An important counter to the idea made by Natural and accepted by our James Reed, is that the coronavirus is a bioweapon. Those holding that line usually go the next step and see the present pandemic as a sample of what is to come, as biological weapons are used in World War III. Here is a summary of the debate:

“Experts seem to agree it wasn’t the product of human engineering. Much research has been focused on the hypothesis that bats passed a virus to some intermediate host—perhaps pangolins, scaly ant-eating mammals—which subsequently passed it to humans. But the pangolin theory has not been conclusively proven. Some experts wonder whether a virus under study at a lab could have been accidentally released, something that’s happened in the past. Among the latest entrants to the debate about the provenance of SARS-CoV-2 are the authors of a March 17 Nature Medicine piece that takes a look at the virus’s characteristics—including the sites on the virus that allow it to bind to human cells. They looked at whether the virus was engineered by humans and present what appears to be convincing evidence it was not. They also considered the possibility that the outbreak could have resulted from an inadvertent lab release of a virus under study but concluded “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

Not all experts agree

Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, a biosecurity expert who has been speaking out on lab safety since the early 2000s, does agree with the Nature Medicine authors’ argument that the new coronavirus wasn’t purposefully manipulated by humans, calling their arguments on this score strong. Ebright helped The Washington Post debunk a claim that the COVID-19 outbreak can somehow be tied to bioweapons activity, a conspiracy theory that’s been promoted or endorsed by  the likes of US Sen. Tom Cotton, Iran’s supreme leader, a high-ranking Chinese government official, and others. But Ebright thinks that it is possible the COVID-19 pandemic started as an accidental release from a laboratory such as one of the two in Wuhan that are known to have been studying bat coronaviruses. Except for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, two deadly viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past, coronaviruses have been studied at laboratories that are labelled as operating at a moderate biosafety level known as BSL-2, Ebright says. And, he says, bat coronaviruses have been studied at such labs in and around Wuhan, China, where the new coronavirus first emerged. “As a result,” Ebright says, “bat coronaviruses at Wuhan [Center for Disease Control] and Wuhan Institute of Virology routinely were collected and studied at BSL-2, which provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers.”

Higher safety-level labs would be appropriate for a virus with the characteristics of the new coronavirus causing the current pandemic. “Virus collection, culture, isolation, or animal infection at BSL-2 with a virus having the transmission characteristics of the outbreak virus would pose substantial risk of infection of a lab worker, and from the lab worker, the public,” Ebright says. Ebright points out that scientists in Wuhan have collected and publicized a bat coronavirus called RaTG13, one that is  96 percent genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2. The Nature Medicine authors are arguing “against the hypothesis that the published, lab-collected, lab-stored bat coronavirus RaTG13 could be a proximal progenitor of the outbreak virus.” But, Ebright says, the authors relied on assumptions about when the viral ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans; how fast it evolved before that; how fast it evolved as it adapted to humans; and the possibility that that the virus may have mutated in cell cultures or experimental animals inside a lab. The Nature Medicine authors “leave us where we were before: with a basis to rule out [a coronavirus that is] a lab construct, but no basis to rule out a lab accident,” Ebright says. Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that is dismissive of conspiracy theories about the origins of the pandemic but also mentions circumstantial evidence that supports the possibility that a lab release was involved. That evidence includes a study “conducted by the South China University of Technology, [that] concluded that the coronavirus ‘probably’ originated in the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” located just 280 meters from the Hunan Seafood Market often cited as the source of the original outbreak.

“The paper was later removed from ResearchGate, a commercial social-networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers,” Huang wrote. “Thus far, no scientists have confirmed or refuted the paper’s findings.”
While vaccines, treatments, and social distancing strategies are critical to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, figuring out where this new coronavirus originated is, too. “It is reasonable to wonder why the origins of the pandemic matter,” the Nature Medicine authors write. “Detailed understanding of how an animal virus jumped species boundaries to infect humans so productively will help in the prevention of future [animal to people transfer] events. For example, if SARS-CoV-2 pre-adapted in another animal species, then there is the risk of future re-emergence events. In contrast, if the adaptive process occurred in humans, then even if repeated zoonotic transfers occur, they are unlikely to take off without the same series of mutations.”

     Thus, it seems that the is no firm conclusion yet that can be made about whether or not the coronavirus arose as a bioweapon or not. There will be a hard time getting to the truth on this one, as the evidential trail will be stone cold in China by now, so it will only be if something gets leaked from the US or other intelligence services. Yet, if World War III erupts with the use of bioweapons of mass destruction, it will be a fair guess where these came from, if we all live long enough to speculate.



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Wednesday, 27 January 2021
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