The debate about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has become toxic. There is still no consensus as to whether this new disease resulted from the passing of a bat coronavirus naturally to humans or was the result of a lab leak, whether of a natural or engineered bat coronavirus.
For the moment there is not enough data to solve the riddle. But one thing is certain: the debate has shed alarming new light on the dangers of a line of scientific enquiry called Gain of Function research that seeks to increase the transmissibility or pathogenicity of animal viruses to infect humans.
The Covid-19 origins saga conjures up shades of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and takes me back to the origins of its virus, HIV-1.
Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, like the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral spillovers
In the last years of the millennium we heard rumours it was made by the KGB, only to be countered by claims the CIA was behind it.
The reality was that in the early 1980s, when the HIV-1 virus burst upon the world, humankind didn’t have the technology to design such a disease.
It took more than a decade before we were able to paint the broad brushstrokes of the origins of AIDS. We now know HIV-1 jumped over from chimpanzees some time in the middle of the 20th Century. There is a huge repertoire of lookalike viruses in African monkeys.
Fast-forward to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – in Wuhan some time in late 2019.
Given its brutal impact around the world, it’s legitimate to ask where it came from. Indeed, we would be bananas not to. The simplest answer is that SARS-CoV-2 came from an animal, ultimately from a bat. But the key issue is: where is its closest relative, the brother or sister virus, not the distant cousin? If we knew that, you would not be reading this piece.
Given its brutal impact around the world, it’s legitimate to ask where Covid came from
The difference between the early days of HIV science and today is the vertiginous firepower virologists now have due to phenomenal advances in science and technology.
Genomes can be synthesized in a test tube from their genetic blueprints. We can cut and paste DNA of all sizes, whole genetic paragraphs, sentences and even individual words just like writing an email. We have spelling correctors too.
Virologists like me have been doing this since the 1980s with ever increasing ease.
In 2012, a heated debate erupted when it was discovered a small number of influenza virologists were engineering bird flu viruses of relatively little danger to humans to see if they could be mutated into viruses with the potential to unleash a pandemic.
It sounds like something from a science-fiction film, so why on earth were they doing this? Let me explain.
Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, like the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral spillovers.
Chicken flu viruses in particular can spill over into humans, usually poultry-handlers. Infection can be lethal – sometimes six out of ten victims will die, which is frightening.
Flu researchers were afraid such viruses might mutate one day and spark a pandemic. So they wanted to know what combination of mutations could make a spillover virus easily transmissible between humans by the respiratory route.
After the use of deliberate gene engineering, they discovered that only a handful of mutations were necessary.
This is not surprising if you understand flu viruses. But the real problem is the fact that scientists could now create new, highly pathogenic viruses not found in nature through Gain of Function work.
I was among those wondering what would happen if there was a lab accident and a researcher became infected with such a virus, against which we had no immunity, and then they inadvertently walked it out of the lab.
So why do this risky work? Researchers said it would help them predict the next pandemic virus. With that knowledge, they claimed it would be possible to develop preventative vaccines and drugs that could be stored frozen and brought out to nip any pandemic in the bud.
It’s a great story that fooled some leading agencies that fund biomedical research. But it’s a pipe dream for a host of reasons involving arcane aspects of virology. Predicting the next pandemic virus or strain is Mission Impossible.
Our track record in pandemic prediction is zero. Nobody predicted Covid-19. Nobody predicted the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. Back then, the smart money was on a chicken virus from South-East Asia. Instead, it emerged from swine in North-West Mexico.
There are no practical benefits from Gain of Function research. Meanwhile, the risk of a lab accident or leak is very small but, as we know from history, not zero and comes with incalculable consequences.
Weighing up the risks and benefits should be a no-brainer. It was for me and for others who don’t believe in making the world a more dangerous place. Yet this is a festering issue that has not been resolved in a decade.
Two weeks ago, a determined group of data analysts, researchers and online detectives going by the colourful name of Drastic, dug up a 2018 proposal by EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organisation, to perform Gain of Function research on bat coronaviruses by cutting and pasting different genome parts. All hell broke loose.
The US project leader was British scientist Peter Daszak, who heads EcoHealth. He has been working for years with Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – most notably with Shi Zhengli, the world’s premier expert on bat coronaviruses. The Chinese call her ‘Batwoman’.
The disturbing revelation was compounded by the discovery EcoHealth proposed surgically precise modifications that would push these viral chimeras even further down the road towards what must bluntly be called a coronavirus admirably suited to infecting humans.
And we can all agree that SARS-CoV-2 is a macabre success story. Fortunately, the proposal was rejected by DARPA, the US defence agency, on the grounds that it constituted Gain of Function work. What we do not know – and badly need to know – is whether this proposal was submitted elsewhere, financed and performed.
Bear in mind the proposal was written in 2018, 18 months before the outbreak in Wuhan.
Researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province
I’m terrified by the idea this pandemic could have started in a lab. Now throw into the mix clear evidence – much of it exposed by this newspaper – of conflicts of interest, obfuscation and covert lobbying on behalf of some of these scientists and their supporters and you have a corrosive brew.
We have witnessed shameful denigration of any voice contemplating a lab leak of any sort, a disgrace that has no part in scientific debate. Yet no apologies have been heard.
Given the huge dangers inherent in Gain of Function virology, we need a worldwide ban on conducting and funding Gain of Function research until international and legally binding standards are set.
Britain, with its excellence in virology and stellar academic institutions, is ideally suited to take the lead – just as it did in setting up the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 headquartered in Geneva, and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
Britain could jump-start the process by building international support leading to an agreement as a precursor to an international treaty.
Such an initiative could be launched by a trio of countries, such as Britain, Germany and Japan. For once, it is no exaggeration to say the safety of the world is at stake.
lSimon Wain-Hobson is Emeritus Professor, Pasteur Institute, Paris, and Chair, Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington DC.