American scientists are actively working to learn the origin of the deadly coronavirus behind the pandemic now spreading around the world, but say a lack of Chinese virus samples has hampered research.
Officials and experts in virology and epidemics tell The Washington Times that researchers need to learn the origins of the virus to find treatments and vaccines and to better prepare for future pandemics.
Robert G. Darling, a medical doctor and expert on biological weapons formerly with the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, said it is crucial that researchers find out where the virus originated and how it spread.
“It is imperative that we identify the origin of the SARS CoV-2 virus,” said Dr. Darling, chief medical officer of Patronus Medical.
“The Chinese almost certainly know but they have not shared it. By learning its origin it will better help us understand the biology of the virus and how it behaves.”
A senior State Department official said questions about the origin of the virus need to be answered and noted recent published reports about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s sole high-security virus research center, have raised questions about whether the virus may have leaked.
“It’s the only Level 4 lab in the PRC, built in response to SARS in 2003, so the question is a valid one,” the official said.
However, the official added that “until we are absolutely certain where this is coming from, it would be irresponsible to put something out about lab origins” of the virus.
“That’s for scientists to figure out and I know they’re actively working it. Those results should be public eventually,” he said.
China’s government has been largely silent on the origin of the virus, while saying the virus made a natural jump from bats to humans or from bats to another wild animal and then to humans.
Recently, Chinese government spokesmen have called for scientific inquiries into the origin of the virus but have not disclosed whether the government is conducting such a study. The Chinese have asked for scientific inquiries into whether the virus was created by the United States — a charge U.S. officials have vehemently dismissed as disinformation.
Authorities in Beijing say the virus outbreak began at a wild animal market in Wuhan, based on reports that many of those first infected worked at the market.
But the skeptics point to a Chinese scientific study that also reported that some early victims had no connection to the market.
They also note the emergence of new insights into the virus that have emerged in recent weeks both from Chinese state media and unofficial online reports, including a censored scientific paper by two Chinese researchers.
The two scientists, Xiao Botao and Lei Xiao, are with the state-run universities in Guangzhou and Wuhan. They argue in the paper that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory near the market.
As for the official Chinese government explanation of a natural transmission, they said it is possible “yet little proof has been reported.”
The researchers said the new virus is very similar to a bat coronavirus found in horseshoe bats, and that the Wuhan Center for Disease Control located close to the suspect market was studying bat viruses.
The center “hosted animals in laboratories for research purpose, one of which was specialized in pathogens collection and identification,” they stated.
The Wuhan laboratory reported Chinese horseshoe bats are natural reservoirs for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus(SARS-CoV) behind the 2002 pandemic and could explain the bat virus research.
“In addition to origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan,” the scientists said.
Another clue appeared on YouTube from a Western blogger in China, Matthew Tye, known by the handle “Laowhy86,” who posts frequently about travels and events in China and has 435,000 subscribers.
“I made a very important discovery to finally put an end to the speculation from the Chinese government that the #Coronaviruscame from the USA, Italy, or anywhere else,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Mr. Tye said in a video posted that day that he had new details about the virus’ origin. Information obtained through open-source research identified a worker at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Huang Yanling, as the suspected “Patient Zero” for the outbreak in Wuhan.
A U.S. official with access to intelligence said without elaborating that the YouTube video is accurate. Mr. Tye could not be reached.
The laboratory issued a statement denying Ms. Huang was the locus of the epidemic. Her photo and biography were removed from the institute website, where they had been posted earlier along with other researchers.
Screen captures of internet postings from the Wuhan Institute of Virology included one for a job opening in November that sought researchers to study links between “coronavirus and bats.” A second job posting on Dec. 24 revealed the Institute was looking to hire multiple researchers. It stated, “We have discovered a new and terrible virus and would like to recruit people to deal with it.”
The YouTube video then mentioned that Mr. Xiao of the South China University of Technology had identified Ms. Huang as Patient Zero who became infected during a laboratory accident and later died. The report said the virus was transmitted to the public by staffers who attended her funeral.
Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asked scientists with the National Academy of Science on Feb. 6 to “rapidly examine” the origins of the new virus.
In a response letter the same day, the academy said the closest known relative of the new virus appeared to be “a virus identified from bat-derived samples collected in China.”
“The experts informed us that additional genomic sequence data from geographically- and temporarily-diverse viral samples are needed to determine the origin and evolution of the virus,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Science in the letter.
“Samples collected as early as possible in the outbreak in Wuhan and samples from wildlife would be particularly valuable,” the letter stated.
The letter said Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was willing to share virus samples and was “working” with the University of Texas Medical Branch for sharing the virus.
However, Kenneth Plante, director of the virus repository at the Texas university, said China refused to provide any samples needed for studying the virus origin because of what he said was the “political climate.”
Details about the virus will help prepare for the next pandemic and how to develop countermeasures, Fort Detrick’s Dr. Darling said.
Mr. Droegemeier’s Feb. 6 letter cited a disputed, pre-publication scientific draft paper by Indian scientists that suggested the virus may have been manipulated in a laboratory, saying that highlighted the need to learn the origin.
The Indian scientific paper was withdrawn for further study but concluded that “taken together, our findings suggest unconventional evolution of 2019-nCoV that warrants further investigation.”
A second State Department official said there is a lot of public information already on where the virus originated but that the U.S. government has not attempted to address the issue.
“In terms of litigating where the virus was born, that is not something that we have tried to do here because there’s just no way here for us to know,” the second official said.
“Instead we’re focusing on the known facts. … We know the outbreak originated in China and the Chinese government was the first to know. And because of those two facts, which by the way have been acknowledged by the WHO and the Chinese government, [Chinese government officials] have a special responsibility to be transparent.”
Chinese officials have pointed to U.S. research at the ScrippsResearch Institute and published in journal Nature Medicine that concluded, “We can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”
That same study, however, states that because China has worked on bat coronaviruses at Level 2 security laboratories, and that the SARS virus has leaked from Chinese labs in the past that the virus could have escaped.
“We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2,” the Nature Medicine study says.