When I first heard the news that a new virus, SARS-CoV-2, was behind an uncontrolled epidemic in China, I assumed it must have been a tragic, natural disaster.
Indeed, we were soon told that this virus had been living in bats in southern China for decades, if not centuries, and had somehow made its way from bats to another animal, possibly a pangolin (a type of scaly anteater).
Dead pangolins sold in Wuhan’s wet markets were said to have jumped the virus to humans.
An alternative theory, sharply promoted by former US President Donald Trump, was that the virus had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, where it was either studied or deliberately improved to make it more transmissible to humans.
There is evidence that something like this has happened before — not on the current scale, although more than 700,000 people died and hundreds of millions were infected worldwide. I was one of the victims
This “lab leak” claim was widely dismissed as just a baseless conspiracy theory and was “disturbed” by a virologist I spoke to in March 2020. . . utterly impossible’.
How times change. The “impossible” lab leak theory is now being taken seriously, not least because, despite a year of hectic searching, we still have no real evidence that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans via an intermediate species from bats. Without it, the claim that Covid-19 arose “naturally” remains unproven.
In addition, US intelligence agencies now say, as has been widely reported, that three lab workers in Wuhan fell ill and were hospitalized in November 2019 due to what appears to be Covid-19.
The Chinese have furiously denied this, but President Joe Biden has told his officials they have 90 days to try to confirm or deny the lab leak theory.
But why would someone in Wuhan or elsewhere have manipulated coronaviruses? The irony is that they may have done it to prevent a future outbreak.
For years, scientists have been conducting experiments in labs where they deliberately try to make nasty, contagious microbes even more infectious or deadly.
It’s called gain-of-function research, and it’s done so that scientists can determine, before it happens, which viruses are likely to cause pandemics and develop ways to stop it.
Dead pangolins sold in Wuhan’s wet markets were said to have jumped the virus to humans. An alternative theory, sharply promoted by former US President Donald Trump, was that the virus had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, where it was either studied or deliberately improved to make it more transmissible to humans.
No serious scientist claims that SARS-CoV-2 was created as a bioweapon, built from scratch, or released on purpose.
The more reasonable proponents of the lab-leak theory suggest instead that it could have been produced by gain-of-function research conducted in a Chinese lab, followed by accidental release, something that has happened all too often from like this. – called “biosecure” labs around the world.
While there’s no hard evidence for this theory yet, there’s some circumstantial support: Two months ago, researchers from leading universities in Australia, Austria, Spain and the US published a paper in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters pointing out that the SARS -CoV-2 virus has “several idiosyncratic features” that make it “remarkably well adapted to humans” from the outset, while poorly adapted to bats, where it was supposed to come from.
They speculated that these changes could have been brought about by someone doing gain-of-function research in a lab.
Another article (titled: ‘The Evidence Suggesting That This Is Not a Naturally-Developed Virus’), written by scientists from the UK and Denmark, but which has not yet been published, also claims that this virus has ‘puzzle-like features’ is so contagious.
I saw an early version of this article and it contains studies conducted by Wuhan researchers showing that they were doing job gain research.
This includes one conducted in 2015, by a US-Chinese team, that used bat viruses to create a mouse virus that could bind to and grow on human cells.
The more reasonable proponents of the lab-leak theory suggest instead that it could have been produced by gain-of-function research conducted in a Chinese lab, followed by accidental release, something that has happened all too often from like this. – called ‘biosecure’ labs all over the world
So the technology to turn a harmless bat virus into something more dangerous certainly exists, but could it have led to SARS-CoV-2? Professor Robin Shattock, a leading vaccine researcher from Imperial College London, is skeptical.
He thinks that a theory of natural origin is much more likely and that proponents of ‘lab leak’ underestimate the power of natural selection.
“The theoretical possibility that this could have been generated in a lab doesn’t make this a likely scenario,” he told me. I usually agree; a man-made pandemic still sounds suspiciously like something out of a science fiction movie.
On the other hand, there is evidence that something like this has happened before – not on the current scale, although more than 700,000 people died and hundreds of millions were infected worldwide. I was one of the victims.
That pandemic, now widely believed to be man-made, was dubbed “Russian flu” as the first cases were reported in Russia.
It swept the world in 1977 – when I was a student at Oxford University and, like many of my contemporaries, I contracted a relatively mild flu-like illness.
I’m sure it was Russian flu because a few years ago I had my blood tested for a documentary about flu pandemics – when my antibodies were compared against a massive database of pandemics from the past 70 years, it showed that I was exposed to many of those pandemics, including the 1977 Russian flu.
The strange thing about this particular pandemic was that it mostly affected people under the age of 26. Then, when scientists looked at the genome of the flu virus that caused it, they noticed something very strange: The virus was almost identical to a flu virus that swept the world in the early 1950s.
This explained why relatively few people over the age of 26 got the Russian flu, as many of them had been infected with protective antibodies against this virus decades earlier.
But the fact that the 1977 virus was almost identical to the earlier virus is very surprising.
This really shouldn’t be happening. It is extremely unlikely that a flu virus, if left to its own devices, would have hung around virtually unchanged for decades before it decided to start infecting humans again.
A more plausible explanation is that the 1977 virus was a direct descendant of the 1950s version, which had been frozen, possibly manipulated, and then escaped or released.
In 2015, researchers from the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University in the US took a detailed look at this outbreak and published a fascinating paper, which concluded that there was evidence that the 1977 virus had been manipulated and that the Russian flu outbreak likely the result of a lab leak or secret vaccine campaign gone wrong.
They added that we will probably never know for sure. I suspect the same will be true for Covid.
What worries me is that, driven by fear of another outbreak, many labs are being set up around the world to research dangerous new viruses.
It is vital that these labs operate in a way that allows for control and accountability. Or we risk future, serious bio-leaks.
Cheers! How beer can make your BBQ healthier
The sun is finally shining and I hope to be able to enjoy the summer barbecues soon. I love the whole show: visiting friends, lighting charcoal, cooking.
But it all starts with the right marinade – for the taste but also to make the meat more tender. I think salt is a mistake as it just dries out the meat.
Other popular options, such as lemon juice or red wine, can tenderize it, but if left too long, the acid will help the proteins in the meat adhere tightly, making it tougher. I prefer yogurt—for its flavor, but also because it contains calcium, which can tenderize meats (for a spicy marinade, add a teaspoon of chili powder, a tablespoon of ground coriander, and a tablespoon of ground cumin to a small jar of yogurt).
Or you can try beer. One of the benefits of marinating meat in dark beer is that it helps prevent the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), harmful compounds linked to colon cancer, which form when meat is exposed to high temperatures.
A 2014 experiment published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that marinating pork in dark ale reduced the levels of PAHs by more than half.