As the CCP virus (COVID-19) ravages the globe, the virus has generated heated debate on whether it is manmade or natural.
While some experts assert that the virus is natural, there is widespread suspicion that the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s only P4 lab that works with highly dangerous pathogens.
The CCP virus, also known as the novel coronavirus COVID-19, broke out in Wuhan, China, around November 2019 and was allowed to spread around the world due to the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup.
Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Health rejected the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus is a bioweapon built in the Wuhan P4 lab and called such claims to be “completely unrealistic, inflammatory, inappropriate and counter productive” in a Youtube video.
The infectious disease expert and the advisor for the film Contagion, who has now become infected with the disease, also expressed his view that the new coronavirus probably won’t kill as many people as SARS in an interview with CGTN in February.
Amidst the contention over COVID-19’s mysterious origins, ground level investigation and interviews have proven to be difficult and sometimes, dangerous.
Li Zehua, 25, who was a former broadcaster with China’s state media CCTV, caught a train to Wuhan in early February and was determined to use his own “eyes and ears” to get a full picture of the outbreak.
On the night of Feb 26, hours after he visited the area around a state-owned virology lab in Wuhan, several police officers showed up at his hotel and he was arrested later that night.
Experts have highlighted many known unknowns about the virus, which will surely continue to fuel the debate.
Is the CCP Virus a Result of Natural Recombination?
One way that novel viruses could emerge is through natural recombination between coronaviruses (CoVs) that are simultaneously existing in nature — for example, the deadly MERS virus that caused the 2015 outbreak resulted from recombination of CoV in camels.
Did the much feared and highly infectious COVID-19 also emerge from such recombination?
It has been reported that the genome sequence of COVID-19 shares 79 percent sequence identity with SARS-CoV and 50 percent identity with MERS-CoV. Further, it is only 88 percent related to the closest bat coronaviruses collected from Zhoushan, eastern China.
In a much cited Lancet paper, Professor Roujian Lu from China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and his co-authors pointed out that “recombination is probably not the reason for the emergence of the virus”.
Six Greek scientists similarly rejected the hypothesis that COVID-19 emerged from a recent recombination in a paper published online on Jan 29. They further documented that “the new coronavirus provides a new lineage for almost half of its genome, with no close genetic relationships to other viruses within the subgenus of sarbecovirus. This genomic part comprises half of the spike region encoding a multifunctional protein responsible also for virus entry into host cells.”
The Greek scientists’ findings pose an interesting puzzle regarding the novel coronavirus: The genetic difference between COVID-19 and other coronaviruses is so extreme—with half of it being new and unseen before—that it can’t be explained by regular recombination, which only causes small changes.
What’s even more bizarre is that the new genomic part makes up half of the spike region—the part of the virus that is key for gaining access to the cells of a host such as humans.
So, if recombination is not the cause, how was the virus formed? What else do we know about the virus’ spikes?
|• The genome sequence of COVID-19 shares 79% sequence identity with SARS-CoV and 50% identity with MERS-CoV. Further, it is only 88% related to the closest bat coronaviruses.|
|• Natural recombination is probably not the reason for the emergence of the virus.|
|• Half of the genome in COVID-19 are new and unseen in other coronaviruses.|
|• The new genomic part of COVID-19 makes up half of its spike region.|
Are Bats and Huanan Seafood Market the Answer?
A Financial Times article reported that “scientists believe the coronavirus originated in bats and could have been spread to humans who ate wild animals sold in China’s markets”. The earliest report hinting that the illegal trade of wild animals at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market was the likely source of COVID-19 was by Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.
However, not everyone holds the same opinion that Huanan Seafood Market was the source—at least not some researchers.
In the previous Lancet article, the authors wrote: “First, the outbreak was first reported in late December, 2019, when most bat species in Wuhan are hibernating. Second, no bats were sold or found at the Huanan Seafood Market, whereas various non-aquatic animals (including mammals) were available for purchase. Third, the sequence identity between 2019-nCoV and its close relatives bat-SL-CoVZC45 and bat-SL-CoVZXC21 was less than 90%.”
The authors suggest that while the virus might have initially been hosted by bats, it may have been transmitted to humans via other mechanisms that are still unknown.
The authors report in the Lancet article that only 27 out of the first 41 patients were found to be connected to the Huanan Seafood Market. The earliest identified case, who reported onset of symptoms on 1 Dec 2019, had no connections with the seafood market.
Notably, there were clear inconsistencies between the data reported in the Lancet article and the initial data released by the Chinese authorities.
A Jan 11 announcement by Wuhan Municipal Health Commission stated that there were 41 confirmed cases, with the majority linked to the Huanan Seafood Market. It also repeatedly claimed that no evidence of human-to-human transmission was found.
Commenting on the statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University said that the Lancet paper’s findings cast doubt on the accuracy of the initial information China provided.
“China must have realized the epidemic did not originate in that Wuhan Huanan seafood market,” said Lucey in an interview with Science.
|• The earliest identified case was not linked to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.|
|• The Chinese authorities’ initial statement on the virus claimed “no evidence of human to human transmission”, casting doubt on the accuracy of their information|