Wuhan lab head had flagged COVID risk in 2015: Report

Washington: The head of China’s Wuhan virology lab, also called as the ‘bat woman’, and an expert from the University of North Carolina in the US, had in a paper published in 2015 flagged the dangers of their gain-of-function experiment of a novel coronavirus which could infect human cells, media reports said.

In the research, Shi Zhengli and epidemiologist Ralph Baric used mice as subjects and inserted the protein from a Chinese rufous horseshoe bat into the molecular structure of the SARS virus from 2002, creating a new, infectious pathogen, the Vanity Fair reported on Thursday.

“Scientific review panels may deem similar studies too risky to pursue,” the researchers wrote in the paper and warned the world of “a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations”.

The findings were published in scientific journal Nature Medicine. It was unearthed by a small team of investigators, commissioned by Matthew Pottinger, the deputy National Security Adviser in the Donald Trump administration. The team aimed to unravel the origins of Covid-19.

The Vanity Fair report quoted Pottinger as saying there were so many people within the government “wholly discounting the possibility of a lab leak, who were predisposed that it was impossible”.

In addition, many leading experts had either received or approved funding for gain-of-function research. Their “conflicted” status, said Pottinger, “played a profound role in muddying the waters and contaminating the shot at having an impartial inquiry”.

The 2015 paper’s acknowledgments also cited funding from the US National Institutes of Health and from a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which had parcelled out grant money from the US Agency for International Development, the report said.

Many experts have until recently denied the lab-leak theory and claimed that Covid-19 originated as a natural infection leaping from animals to humans. But now, there has been a shift.

A team of 18 scientists from Universities in the US, Canada, the UK and Switzerland have signed a letter in the journal Science arguing the need to determine the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. Various other studies have hinted at Covid-19 as a result of the Wuhan lab-leak. The US’ top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci also said he is “not convinced” Covid-19 developed naturally.

US President Joe Biden has recently ordered the intelligence community to re-double efforts to examine how the virus originated, including the lab accident theory. The European Union, the UK, Australia, and Japan also have joined the US in seeking a deeper probe into the origins of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry has last week dismissed the Wuhan lab leak theory as “extremely impossible” and have accused the US of “political manipulation”, media reports noted.


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