COVID-19 Origins: New Evidence, and More Politics

The researchers later explain

Once the data were identified on GISAID, it became possible to test the veracity of these claims. We found information that was critical to understanding the nature of the origins of the human infections at the Huanan market, as this was the early epicenter of SARS-CoV-2 spread and was likely where spillover occurred and sustained human-to-human transmission was established.

They continue:

Our analysis of these data found that genetic evidence of multiple animal species was present in locations of the market where SARS-CoV-2 positive environmental samples had been collected. This includes raccoon dogs, which are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and shed sufficient virus to transmit to other species. However, this also included other mammalian species that require consideration as possible intermediate hosts of SARS CoV-2. Although live mammals had previously been observed at Huanan market in late 2019, their exact locations were not conclusively known, and some of the animal species we identify in the report below were not included in the list of live or dead animals tested at the Huanan market, as reported in the 2021 WHO-China joint report on the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our results show that they were present. In some cases, the amount of animal genetic material was greater than the amount of human genetic material, consistent with the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in these samples being due to animal infections.

They then detail their attempts to inform an author of the Gao et al. preprint about the data and later accusations that they had violated GISAID’s terms of use. They then notified the WHO of their preliminary findings, at which point SAGO convened a meeting with some of these researchers and scientists from China CDC. SAGO explained in their statement that

The presentations from China CDC and invited international researchers indicated that there were newly available data from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. This included metagenomic data of environmental samples from various stalls and wastewater collection sites collected as early as January 2020. Analyses of these data suggest that apart from SARS-CoV-2 sequences, some samples also contained human DNA, as well as mitochondrial DNA of several animal species, including some that are known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. This included DNA from wild raccoon dogs, Malaysian porcupine, and bamboo rats among others, in SARS-CoV-2 positive environmental samples.

Importantly, the statement explains:

The findings suggest that animals were present at the market shortly before the market had been cleared on 1 January 2020, as part of the public health measures by Chinese authorities. These results provide potential leads to identifying intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV-2 and potential sources of human infections in the market.

While GISAID allegedly made the data unavailable to the researchers because it is the basis for an update to an existing Liu et al. 2022 preprint that is in the process of being re-submitted for publication by China CDC, this presents a troubling twist in the COVID-19 origin saga. This information sat in GISAID hidden for the better part of a year, and was made unavailable when scientists outside China CDC sought to analyze it, even though they contacted the initial authors and requested to collaborate.

Among the abundant discussion this has brought has been outrage directed at the PRC for failing disclose this data. The WHO itself expressed concern, with Director-General Tedros saying “These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer…And every piece of data relating to studying the origins of COVID-19 needs to be shared with the international community immediately.”

When asked in an interview why these data were not made available sooner, Maria Van Kerkhove (technical lead of the WHO’s COVID-19 response), said “That is the question. Why weren’t these data shared and analyzed with Chinese scientists? We have been calling for any and all data to be made available. Clearly there is more data that is out there. What is not clear is what else is out there,” adding another layer of concern in this ongoing search for the pandemic’s origin.

Pandora Report highlights two other developments:

COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023 Signed by President Biden
Of course, concerns about lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new in the Beltway, as was further demonstrated this week. This Monday, President Biden signed a bill into law directing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify certain information about COVID-19’s origin. President Biden said in a statement “We need to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins to help ensure we can better prevent future pandemics.  My Administration will continue to review all classified information relating to COVID–19’s origins, including potential links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  In implementing this legislation, my Administration will declassify and share as much of that information as possible, consistent with my constitutional authority to protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security.”

The bill indicates the information must be released within 90 days of being signed into law, and it covers information like names, symptoms, and roles of any researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who became ill in the fall of 2019. The House passed the bill in a 419-0 vote following the Senate’s unanimous vote, in a rare showing of overwhelming bipartisanship. Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut told The Washington Post the declassified information made available to the public will not be the raw transcripts from intercepted calls, but finished intelligence reports.

Biosecurity Discussion Continues
This entire saga has all brought renewed public debate over the safety of high-containment laboratories. Sam Weiss Evans and David Gillum write in STAT News,

The Covid pandemic exacerbated fear and panic regarding the potential for a future bioterrorism agent. As the lab leak theory continues to cause debate, politicians want to be able to tell their constituents that they are solving the problem by adding more oversight to biological research. But if all they are doing is adding more burden, bureaucracy, and box-checking, is it really making anyone more secure?

…governance systems are increasingly not up to the task of managing biosecurity risks. States, industry, and academia have been too focused on the technical frontiers in biotechnology, heralding cheaper, more efficient, and more sophisticated tools to conduct biological research, but not putting the same degree of curiosity or funding into how we might direct these advances in ways that protect the vulnerable and prevent catastrophe. Scientific advances such as CRISPR, gene drives, synthetic viruses, and increased pathogen capabilities, are rapidly proceeding while innovation in our collective ability to govern their security concerns is not.

While the debate over the lab leak hypothesis has been politically charged from the start, there are broader biosecurity concerns that do deserve increased attention, as highlighted by the Global BioLabs project in its latest report-Global BioLabs Report 2023Newsweek covered this report this week, writing in part ‘”We urgently need coordinated international action to address increasing bio-risks,” Gregory Koblentz, an author of the report with the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said in a statement.”

Science summarizes much of the concern in their discussion of the report, writing “Concerns about an increasing number of BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs aren’t new, but they have grown since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began in 2019. One hypothesis is that the virus came from a lab. And many countries, particularly those building their first BSL-4 labs, lack strong policies and methods to monitor such labs, the report says. Only Canada has legislation overseeing all experiments, even those with no government funding, that are considered “dual use” because the results could potentially be used to cause harm.”

This article is published courtesy of the Pandora Report.