Did the coronavirus escape from the laboratory? Scientists say the idea is worth reviewing.

Before 3D printing of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, 3D printing of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Peplomers (foreground) allow viruses to invade and infect human cells. In the virus model, the surface of the virus (blue) is covered with a spike protein (red), which allows the virus to invade and infect human cells. Credit: NIH

Eighteen scientists from some of the world’s most prestigious research institutes are urging colleagues to dig deeper into the origin of the coronavirus that is responsible for the pandemic.

In a letter published in the journal on Thursday Science, They argue that there is still not enough evidence to rule out the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has escaped from Chinese laboratories, calling for a “proper investigation” of the issue.

“This question deserves fair and thorough science-based research, and we believe that subsequent decisions need to be based on available data,” said Stanford University’s Microbiology and Immunology. Dr. David Lerman, a professor of science and help with writing the letter, said.

This short letter was partially prompted by the March 30 issue of a report commissioned by the World Health Organization to discover the origin of the virus, which killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide. ..

The author of the report, credited to both WHO and China, ranked each of the four possible scenarios on a scale from “very unlikely” to “very likely.”

After reviewing the information, data, and samples presented by Chinese members of the team, the authors are “very likely” that the virus will jump from source animals to intermediate species and then to humans. I concluded. Accidental laboratory leaks were considered “very unlikely”.

Other potential pathways examined by researchers are direct animal-to-human jumps (“potential”) and transmission from the surface of frozen foods (“potential”) without intermediate hosts. did.

However, Lerman and his co-authors said colleagues working on the WHO survey did not have access to sufficient information to draw these conclusions.

“We are rational scientists with expertise in relevant fields, and we don’t see any data that this must be of natural origin,” Relman said.

Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, who signed the letter, wants to review laboratory notes from scientists working at the Wuhan Virus Research Institute, a research center where coronaviruses are being studied. Said. He also wants to see a list of viruses that have been used in the lab for five years.

The WHO report records meetings between investigators and several members of the institute, including lab director Yuan Zhiming, who visited the facility on a joint team.

At the meeting, WIV representatives argued that the COVID-19-causing coronavirus may have leaked from the laboratory, and that all three SARS-like viruses cultivated in the laboratory were SARS-CoV-2. He said it was not closely related.

They also found that blood samples obtained from workers and students in a research group led by WIV virologist Shi Zhengli, who studies SARS-like coronaviruses derived from bats, do not contain SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Pointed out. Past infectious diseases.

But as a scientist, Lerman said he needed more than this third-party explanation to rule out the possibility of accidental laboratory leaks. (He and his colleagues did not suggest that the potential leak was intentional.)

“Show me the test you used: what was the method? What were the results and names of the people tested? Did you test the control population?” Relman said. “For all accounts, it was not the presentation of the right and detailed type of data that allowed outside scientists to reach independent conclusions.”

WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed a similar opinion when the report was first published.

“The team concluded that laboratory leaks were the least likely hypothesis, but this required further investigation and potentially additional missions, including experts I was ready to deploy. Accompanied, “he said in a speech to WHO member states on March 30. “As far as WHO is concerned, let me be clear that all hypotheses remain in the table.”

Michael Worobey, who studies the virus at the University of Arizona and understands the origin, emergence, and control of pandemics, also signed this letter. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has enjoyed two possibilities as to how it began, either as an escape from the laboratory or as a natural transmission from animals to humans.

Fifteen months later, he still accepts both possibilities.

“Neither method had enough definitive proof, so both remain at the table for me,” he said.

Wolobay is working with graduate students in his lab to collect viruses from wild bats, and how this study can create an ecological path to introduce new pathogens into humans. I thought a lot about.

“As someone doing this, I’m very aware of the openings that new viruses create to get closer to humans, and I think that’s another reason I take this seriously.” He said. “I’m worried about it in my work.”

Other scientists have convincingly shown that SARS-CoV-2 is not a genetically engineered laboratory structure to facilitate transmission to humans, Wolobay said. However, it does not rule out the possibility that unmodified viruses collected by field scientists and brought into the lab have been transferred to humans.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that I can see and say.’Oh, ok, this certainly argues against the origin of the accidental laboratory and the fact that it was a natural phenomenon. I’m 100% convinced on it, “he said.” Both possibilities are feasible until we reach the stage. “

Scientists said there was one conclusive evidence that the virus actually spread to humans through natural phenomena. It is the discovery of wild animals with the virus.

Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology and epidemiology at Yale University, said the WHO report mentions testing of more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples collected from 31 states in China. Stated. None of these tests found fragments of SARS-CoV-2 antibody or viral genetic material before or after the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in China.

“But animal reservoirs may have been overlooked, and further investigation may reveal such evidence,” said Iwasaki, who signed the letter.

David Robertson, Head of Virus Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, was not included in the signatories of the letter. He said he didn’t understand that.

“No one has said that an accident in the laboratory is unlikely. There is no evidence of this other than the Wuhan Institute of Virginology in Wuhan,” he said.

According to Robertson, the virus has always traveled naturally from animals to humans, and SARS-CoV-2 may have been one of them.

He agreed with the author of the letter, stating that finding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is essential to prepare for the next pandemic, but “waste time in laboratory research. It’s a mess, “he said.

Lerman doesn’t see it that way.

“If it turns out to be of natural origin, there’s a little more information about where the natural reservoir is and how to be more careful around it in the future,” he said. “And if it’s a laboratory, we’re talking about what kind of experiment we’re doing and thinking more seriously about why.”

The author of the letter said it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists and citizens who shared important information about the spread of the virus with the world during this period of anti-Asian sentiment in some countries.

“We should show the same determination to promote a cool, science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue,” they wrote.

Follow the latest news about the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19)

For more information:
Jennifer Sills et al. Investigate the origin of COVID-19 Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126 / science.abj0016

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Did the coronavirus escape from the laboratory? Scientists say the idea is worth reviewing.

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