Did coronavirus come from a lab?

April 2020

Summary

The ancestor to COVID-19 was discovered in 2013 by Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) called RaTG13 (96% similarity to COVID-19). Recombination within a pangolin only gets to ~99% similarity. The final 1% is the missing “furin cleavage site”, which is the “gain-of-function research” that WIV has been doing for years. In fact, WIV successfully conducted research in 2015 to create a furin site in MERS.

WIV discovered the bat which served as a reservoir/ancestor to the 2003 SARS virus (Rs3367). It too had 96% similarity to SARS. Research in 2008 revealed that the virus had to recombine in a civet before achieving 99.8% similarity to SARS.

Many of the coronavirus genomes collected by WIV in 2013 were released at that time. The RaTG13 genome was released in January 2020. WIV hosts animals for further research and experimentation in the Wuhan CDC which is less than 300 meters from the Wuhan market (identified as the source of the pandemic). Concerns about their safety measures have been expressed since 2017.




It is hard to ignore the coincidence that COVID-19 emerged right next to one of the world’s largest virology labs. As opposed to the typical conspiracy theorist, I wanted to take a scientific approach backed by credible sources. Ironically, I had done statistical research in 2008 at University of Miami to assess the mutability of HIV. So reading the papers on the COVID-19 genome was quite the nostalgic activity. As I continued down the rabbit hole, I felt as though I was getting closer and closer to what I was searching for.


My in-depth research with sources

  1. The Wuhan CDC is less than 300 meters from the Wuhan seafood market and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is 12 kilometers away. The earliest date for first symptoms was reported on December 1 in a person who did not have any exposure to the market. 13 of the initial 41 people found with the novel coronavirus had no link with the market. In a later report, 50 of the initial 99 patients found no exposure to the market.
  2. Bats sold at the Wuhan seafood market were initially assigned the blame. The bats that serve as a reservoir for coronaviruses are called horseshoe bats, a type of microbat. The biggest of these horseshoe bats weigh 1 oz, which means they are not eaten for their meat in China. They also hibernate during the colder months. Further investigation finds conflicting information suggesting that bats were not even sold in the Wuhan markets.
  3. The closest genetic similarity to COVID-19 is BatCoV RaTG13 with a very high 96% similarity discovered by WIV in Yunnan province in 2013. The complete genome of this virus was not released until Jan 2020. Genomes for other bat like coronaviruses that were collected by WIV in 2013 were released prior to the pandemic.
  4. China muzzled whistleblowers, misled the WHO, and restricted open research. After the COVID-19 was first sequenced, the Shanghai lab that first sequenced the virus was shut down the very next day.
  5. Shi Zhengli directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the WIV. She first identified SARS’ ability for the spike protein to interact with ACE2 receptor in 2013 and later discovered the bat origin (strain Rs3367) of SARS in 2017. In 2015 she conducted “gain-of-function” research enabling a coronavirus to skip the intermediary host (e.g. civet 99.8% homolog) and jump straight from bat to human. The spike protein of SHC014-CoV was combined with a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone and the resulting chimera virus was able to successfully replicate in human airway cells and live mouse models. She repeated this research in 2016 using a spike protein from a SARS precursor (Rs3367). In 2017 she published a paper creating 8 more chimeric viruses.
  6. The mouse adapted SARS-CoV backbone was built by Dr Ralph Baric of University of North Carolina. “We adapted the SARS-CoV (Urbani strain) by serial passage in the respiratory tract of young BALB/c mice. Fifteen passages resulted in a virus (MA15) that is lethal for mice following intranasal inoculation.” … “When introduced into a recombinant SARS-CoV, these mutations result in a highly virulent and lethal virus (rMA15).”
  7. Gain-of-function research was heavily criticized by many scientists including Dr Simon Wain-Hobson who stated that “If transposable to humans, this would constitute a novel virus with a case fatality rate ~30 greater than that of Spanish flu.” In 2014, the US National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on SARS, MERS, and influenza gain-of-function studies, due to concerns about the risks vs. benefits of such research, lifting this moratorium in 2017.
  8. In March Shi Zhengli told Scientific American, “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.” Her studies had shown that the southern, subtropical provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan have the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals—particularly bats, a known reservoir. If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking, “Could they have come from our lab?”.
  9. The WIV announced in a hiring notice on December 24, 2019 that “a large number of new bat and rodent new viruses have been discovered and identified.”
  10. An academic paper written on February 6 by Botao Xiao suggests that the origin was one of 2 research labs in Wuhan. Botao Xiao was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, and his biography is still on the web site of the South China University of Technology. The paper has now been withdrawn.
  11. “WHCDC hosted animals in laboratories for research purpose, one of which was specialized in pathogens collection and identification. In one of their studies, 155 bats including Rhinolophus affinis were captured in Hubei province, and other 450 bats were captured in Zhejiang province 4.” … “The expert in collection was noted in the Author Contributions (JHT). Moreover, he was broadcasted for collecting viruses on nation-wide newspapers and websites in 2017 and 2019. He described that he was once by attacked by bats and the blood of a bat shot on his skin. He knew the extreme danger of the infection, so he quarantined himself for 14 days. In another accident, he quarantined himself again because bats peed on him.”
  12. Scientists have been experimenting with insertion to create a furin cleavage site going back to 2006.
  13. Shi has done research replacing the receptor binding motif (RBM) in one type of virus by an RBM from another from 2007-2017. In 2019 the WIV was part of 3.7 million NIH grant titled Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence. Under its auspices, Shi Zhengli co-authored a 2019 paper that called for continued research into synthetic viruses and testing them in vitro and in vivo. “We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.”
  14. COVID-19 has already been cloned by reverse engineering.
  15. In 2018, after scientist diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Beijing visited the WIV, they were so concerned by the lack of safety and management at the lab that the diplomats sent two official warnings back to the U.S. One of the official cables.
  16. Lab leaks have happened before.
  17. [My conclusion] SARS-CoV2 appears to be too well adapted to humans-to-human transmission starting around November 2019. A natural animal to human zoonotic event would typically have a much initial lower transmission rate as the virus became adapted to the new human host for sustained human-to-human transmission. While a “natural” transmission is very possible, the “Occam’s razor” in this case appears to be that it comes from a lab. Theoretically, a scientist could have used an unpublished bat strain (RaTG13), recombined with a pangolin (to recombine RNA for its variant RBM), and inserted a furin site as demonstrated by previous “gain-of-function” research. This hypothetical scientist could have been nefarious or unknowingly used poor safety measures.