The unending search for COVID-19’s origin | Inquirer Opinion
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The unending search for COVID-19’s origin

/ 05:02 AM March 05, 2023

Three years after it began, and with nearly seven million confirmed COVID-19 deaths in 229 countries, the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the world in countless ways is still sickening and killing people. But mercifully, it has slowed down.

The rapid decline in cases is largely attributed to the fact that large numbers of people have acquired immunity either from the vaccines or from natural exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease called COVID-19.

But there is another reason why we may finally be seeing the last phase of the pandemic. To the pleasant surprise of experts, this virus has not evolved and mutated in such a way as to produce more lethal and immune evasive variants as was initially feared. Indeed, the widespread variant Omicron — a more infectious but much less deadly variant — has been fairly stable. This means that both our vaccine-acquired and natural immunity continue to work against the virus.

This piece of good news, however, also confirms what some scientists have suspected since the early phase of the pandemic—“[T]hat by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV.” For, how else do we account for its efficient spread and astounding lethality from the very beginning? As the science writer Matt Ridley, co-author (with Alina Chan) of the recent book “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19,” explains: “Clearly, one of the ways that a virus could have become ‘well adapted for humans’ … was by having spent time in human cells or in a so-called humanized animal in the laboratory,” whose genome has been altered to include a key human gene.

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It was either that this virus was so exceptionally agile as to be able to greatly shorten the period of zoonotic transmission, or that the virus was already circulating in humans long before it was detected. The idea that the virus could have been bioengineered to serve as a weapon was never taken seriously. But the possibility of a laboratory escape was always there, simply because accidental lab leaks are not an uncommon occurrence, although no major pandemic has ever been traced to a lab leak.

Yet, for some reason, mainstream scientists both in China and the United States were quick to dismiss any speculation that the virus might have originated in a laboratory as conspiratorial theorizing. Instead, just a couple of weeks after a full genome sequence of the novel coronavirus was completed, they advanced the finding that the source of the virus was the live animal market in Wuhan. They pointed to the fact that most of the first patients to go to the hospital complaining of strange pneumonia had recently visited the market or had been exposed to someone who did. To this day, however, no one has been able to pinpoint the animal that supposedly served as the intermediate carrier of the virus. It is a testimony to the current toxic relationship between politics and science that the handful of scientists who were bold enough to cast doubt on the proposition that SARS-CoV-2 was a product of natural transmission have been denounced as “fringe,” and/or deplatformed from social media sites as promoters of unreliable science. Instead of flourishing as a worthy topic for scientific discussion and debate, the issue of COVID-19’s origin effectively lent itself to the strident polarization of American politics and media.

But once in a while, the issue re-emerges and makes it to the front pages of Western media. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy has announced that in view of fresh intelligence, it now believes that the virus SARS-CoV-2 probably escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. But the announcement comes with a caveat — it makes clear that this determination is issued with “low confidence,” thus once more signaling the supreme hesitation with which US authorities have approached the question.

Clearly, this is not entirely a Chinese problem. It is an officially acknowledged fact that US agencies are major contributors of funds to the research being done in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other virology research centers. Therefore, lab-leak accidents arising from poor enforcement of bio-lab protocols in these Chinese research centers can equally be laid at the door of America’s official scientific establishment.

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But does it really matter now if the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory or was bred in the wild? The geneticist Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley believe it is — not to assign blame, but to prevent future pandemics. In their book “Viral,” they argue: “If some human practice had encouraged the spread—the farming of wildlife for food, say, or the disturbance of some natural habitat — this practice must cease. Or, if some research experiment or fieldwork project had gone awry, lessons must be learned, and laboratory practices reviewed. Searching for the origin of COVID-19 could not and cannot be some idle pastime for a few curious scientists and internet sleuths; it is a vital task for the safety of humankind and demands a rigorous, credible, and evidence-based investigation by experts worldwide.”

Safety is thus the paramount consideration behind this continuing quest. It is alarming to know, writes Dhruv Khullar in a recent piece for the New Yorker Daily, that: “Globally, there is no comprehensive inventory, let alone rigorous oversight, of laboratories that handle highly contagious and deadly pathogens.” Don’t look to the World Health Organization for this. It simply lacks the power.

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