The search for COVID-19’s origin has taken an interesting turn, as new evidence presented by a team of French and Laotian scientists of a virus closely related to SARS-CoV-2 appears to lend credence to the lab leak theory, which proposes that the current version of the virus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Initially proposed by Sen. Tom Cotton in February 2020, the lab leak theory was immediately dismissed as a conspiracy theory by the Washington Post, which claimed that it “was already debunked,” even before public health experts and virologists took a serious look at the virus’ origins. Earlier this year, the Washington Post walked back its claim and revised the entire report, in which it mischaracterized Cotton, The Hill reported.
A Thursday article on The Spectator reports that in September 2021, a team of French and Laotian scientists discovered a virus closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in a horseshoe bat living in a cave in the Laotian province of Vientiane.
While similar viruses have been discovered in China and neighbouring countries — including Cambodia, Thailand and Japan — the virus discovered in the Laotian cave, Banal-52, is the most genetically similar virus to the one that sparked the pandemic.
RaTG13, a virus that had been stored for six years in a freezer in a Wuhan lab is genetically 96.1 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2, the Banal-52 virus is 96.8 per cent similar.
The Spectator reports:
For the first time since the pandemic began, this was a virus genetically closer to the human SARS-CoV-2 virus than one called RaTG13, collected in southern Yunnan in 2013. RaTG13, which had been stored for six years in a freezer in a lab in Wuhan itself, is genetically 96.1 per cent the same as SARS-CoV-2; Laos’s Banal-52 is 96.8 per cent.
True, the Laos virus lacked a critical feature in a key part of a key gene that makes COVID so infectious: a special twelve-letter segment of genetic text called a furin cleavage site. It’s a feature that has never been seen in a SARS-like virus, except for SARS-CoV-2. Apart from that, it seemed that the Laotian virus might have knocked the burden of proof back across the philosophical net into the court of the proponents of lab-leak.
As The Spectator outlines, the discovery of Banal-52 was embraced by supporters of the theory that the virus transmitted to humans in a natural spillover event, and wasn’t the result of a lab accident. Collaborators of the Wuhan scientists fully embrace the theory that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin.
While supporters of the natural spillover theory felt emboldened by their position, a set of emails uncovered by a lawsuit from the White Coat Waste Project shows an exchange between the
EcoHealth Alliance and the United States government. In the emails, the scientists discussed collecting viruses from bats in eight countries, including Laos, between 2016 and 2019.
To avoid complications of signing up local subcontractors to the grants in each of the eight countries, EcoHealth Alliance promised to send the virus samples to a laboratory already funded by the organization in Wuhan.
The Spectator continues:
Some of the emails talk about sending data, not samples; but some talk repeatedly about sending actual samples. “All samples collected would be tested at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” reads one from 2016. Another in 2018 even talks of sending bats themselves. The emails make it clear that Wuhan scientists would sometimes be working in the field alongside their US colleagues.
Remember the central issue is how a bat virus got to Wuhan. So now, in both Yunnan and Laos, the only people who knowingly transported bat virus samples to Wuhan — and only to Wuhan — were scientists. Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand-based data scientist who’s been analyzing this issue, says the natural spillover theory has “no explanation for why this would result in an outbreak in Wuhan of all places, and nowhere else.”
As for that missing furin cleavage site, another leaked document revealed in September by Drastic, a confederation of open-source analysts like Demaneuf, sent shock- waves through the scientific community. Dr. Peter Daszak, head of the EcoHealth Alliance, spelled out plans to work with his collaborators in Wuhan and elsewhere to artificially insert novel, rare cleavage sites into novel SARS-like coronaviruses collected in the field, so as to better understand the biological function of cleavage sites. His 2018 request for $14.2 million from the Pentagon to do this was turned down amid uneasiness that it was too risky; but the very fact that he was proposing it was alarming.
As the publication details, the vast majority of the funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology comes from the Chinese government, so the failure to win a U.S. grant may not have prevented the work from continuing. The WIV had previously conducted similar experiments with a different kind of coronavirus and had experience with the research.
“But even finding relevant viruses in Laos still won't answer the question of how they got loose in Wuhan. And with the continuing failure to find any evidence of infected animals for sale in Chinese markets, the astonishing truth remains this: the outbreak happened in a city with the world's largest research program on bat-borne coronaviruses, whose scientists had gone to at least two places where these SARS-CoV-2-like viruses live, and brought them back to Wuhan — and to nowhere else,” The Spectator reported.