Why is everyone suddenly talking about COVID-19 leaking from a lab?

aerial view of laboratory buildings

Wuhan Institute of Virology
Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL (Getty Images)

There has been a fairly broad consensus among scientists who study viruses that that that causes COVID-19 occurred naturally and passed from animals to humans in late 2019, in or near Wuhan, China. But another hypothesis – that he escaped from a lab in this town – has been tossed around like a political football since the start of the pandemic, and has never been dealt with. more credulity that these last days.

Is there any new evidence that a lab leak may have occurred? Not really; nothing has changed scientifically that would change the opinion of the experts. But scientists and governments have still not been able to pinpoint the exact source of the coronavirus, despite nearly a year and a half of investigations. So technically it’s still an open question.

What made this Wuhan lab leak theory back in the news?

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported three researchers from the Wuhan laboratory were hospitalized in November 2019 (the virus was officially discovered in December). Their symptoms were consistent with those of COVID-19, but they were also consistent with “seasonal illness” – in other words, they could have just had a cold or the flu.

This new information is not a smoking gun, but it came out just as the World Health Organization prepared the next phase of its investigation into the origins of the virus.

President Biden then ad that he has asked the intelligence community for a report in 90 days on what is known of the possible origins of the coronavirus. They’re unlikely to learn anything over the next 90 days that hasn’t been learned in the past year and a half, but the problem has always been political and unfolds that way. Democrats and the GOP argue about it; the U.S. and China threaten to investigate each other.

Could the virus have been created in a lab and deployed as a biological weapon?

This scenario is extremely unlikely, according to experts. Genetic analyzes have shown that it is very similar to another coronavirus that has existed in the wild, in bats, in another region of China. It does not bear any mark of tampering in a laboratory; you can read more from a genetic scientist about this theory here.

There’s also a plausibility issue here: The whole idea of ​​a bioweapon – of any weapon – is that you have to be able to use it against your enemy without it taking you out at the same time. The guns fire from a distance; bombs are strategically placed or dropped. A highly contagious virus would make a bad weapon, because there are no limits to contain it only to the targeted victims. And the coronavirus has indeed spread globally.

Okay, if the virus wasn’t created in a laboratory, could it have been discovered naturally and then escaped?

This is much more plausible than the idea that the virus was created or deliberately released, but very few experts believe he is likely. Worth considering however, since it is not completely impossible.

Part of the work at the Wuhan lab was investigating a variety of coronaviruses, including many bats, to determine what makes some of them so dangerous. (Remember, SARS was another coronavirus with a possible bat origin, and it was responsible for a frightening but short-lived pandemic that began in Asia in 2003.)

For some information on SARS, other coronaviruses and what is currently known about the possible natural origin of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2, as it is officially called), this summary of Science News explains it well. In short, it’s really hard to trace the source of a virus, because there are so many different animal viruses out there, and finding which one is most closely linked to COVID-19 is a needle-in-a-bunch problem. hay. The origins of the SARS virus were not well understood until 2017, and the origins of COVID-19 can also take years to understand.


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