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Covid origin: lab theory not crazy after all – Expert thinks it is possible

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Kuldeep Singh
Kuldeep is a Journalist and Writer at Revyuh.com. He writes about topics such as Apps, how to, tips and tricks, social network and covers the latest story from the ground. He stands in front of and behind the camera, creates creative product images and much more. Always ready to review new products. Email: kuldeep (at) revyuh (dot) com

Does Sars-Cov-2 come from the laboratory after all? 

Proponents of this thesis are often dismissed as nuts or even conspiracy theorists. 

The president of one of the world’s most important high-security research laboratories on the Baltic island of Riems offered some surprising results.

Since US President Joe Biden hired his secret service to find the real cause of the pandemic at the end of May, it has flared up again: the debate about the origin of the Sars-CoV-2 pathogen. 

There is still no evidence of China’s original statement that the pandemic started at the wildlife market in Wuhan and the virus spread from bats to humans via intermediate hosts. Subsequent claims that the pathogen came into the country through frozen goods are also unfounded.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was unable to shed any light on an investigation in the Middle Kingdom at the beginning of the year. The controversial final report classifies the wild market thesis as “likely to very likely”. The authors of the report also described a direct transmission to humans as “possible to likely.” So nothing is clear so far – apart from the fact that coronaviruses originally came from bats.

Covid origin: More and more experts consider laboratory theory to be possible

Since Wuhan is also home to China’s leading coronavirus research laboratory with the world’s largest collection of bat samples, the Wuhan Institute for Virology (WIV), another theory soon emerged: namely that the virus could have escaped there. Even if the head of the laboratory, Shi Zhengli, who has since achieved international fame as the “Bat Woman”, rejected the allegations and theses.

This theory was recently fueled by a “Wall Street Journal” article. There it says that there are US intelligence reports that employees of this laboratory allegedly fell ill in November 2019 and had to be treated in hospital.

While the laboratory thesis has so far often been brushed off the table as a spinning or conspiracy theory, also by virologist Christian Drosten, it seems to be finding more and more followers at the moment. 

In the meantime, experts believe that an accidental release from the laboratory is quite possible. The pathogen of the Sars pandemic from 2003 escaped twice from a Beijing research institute and infected nine people – one of whom died.

High security laboratory expert considers theory plausible

But is it even possible for viruses to escape from high-security laboratories like those in Wuhan? 

“I think that is highly unlikely, but you can never completely rule it out,” says Thomas C. Mettenleiter from the Friedrich Löffler Institute (FLI), the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health. 

As the president of this facility, he knows exactly what he is talking about because he is the master of the high-security laboratories on the Baltic Sea island of Reims, which lies between the mainland and Rügen in the Greifswalder Bodden and is considered Germany’s most dangerous island.

“We deal with animal disease pathogens, but also with zoonoses, that is pathogens that jump back and forth between humans and animals,” explains the virologist. 

That is why the almost four square kilometer island of Riems is hermetically sealed off. The primary goal of research there is not only the protection of food-producing animals such as poultry, pigs and cattle, but also that of humans.

Because of the complex protective measures, such facilities are few and far between. There are only three other similar laboratories worldwide that, like the FLI, research highly pathogenic pathogens in large animals as hosts: in Winnipeg, Canada, Geelong – Australia and Harbin-China. 

However, there are around 50 laboratories worldwide that specialize in highly contagious viruses. Most of these are in the US, UK, and Germany. Two are in China, one of which is the suspected Wuhan Institute of Virology.

FLI is researching corona viruses on the Baltic Sea island

Sars-CoV-2 is also being researched on Riems. 

“We examine how susceptible our farm animals are to the pathogen”. 

Mettenleiter can give the all-clear:

“Neither poultry nor pigs are susceptible to this – cattle to a small extent, but not in such a way that they can serve as a bridge host and pass the virus on to people.”

At least good news in times of this never-ending pandemic.

But that’s not all that Mettenleiter and his team are scrutinizing scientifically in this regard:

“We are also establishing model systems that reflect asymptomatic Sars-CoV-2 infection or Covid-19 in animals such as ferrets and golden hamsters, for example in order to produce vaccines and To test therapeutics against it,” he explains. 

The research work also focuses on the biological properties of the new corona mutations. According to Mettenleiter, the investigations in this regard are only carried out in laboratories with protection level three – in the highest protection level four, for example, Ebola pathogens are examined.

Complex security systems in protective laboratories

Nevertheless, the protective measures in both protection level three and protection level four are extremely complex:

“The high-security laboratories have particularly comprehensive security technology. For example, the entire building is under negative pressure, so that the inflowing air can only get outside via high-performance particulate filters – in protection level four, both supply and exhaust air are filtered.”

The full protective suits for employees in protection level four also work in a similar way. They are not only supplied with filtered air via a hose, but also inflated via the room pressure so that no pathogens can penetrate even if they have a leak. The full protective suits in level three, on the other hand, have portable filters. Wastewater sterilization, disinfection sluices for employees and all-round monitoring of the systems also ensure that nothing ominous can escape.

“These protective measures are standard worldwide in such laboratories – but of course there is the human factor. Mistakes can just happen,” explains Mettenleiter. 

There have been isolated accidents in the history of these high-security laboratories in which pathogens have unintentionally got outside. An animal disease spread from Riems in eastern Germany: foot-and-mouth disease. 

“That was in the 80s, however, when the safety standards were by far not up to date with today’s standards,” says Mettenleiter.

Viruses are modified in laboratories for research purposes

However, the virologist considers it unlikely that Sars-CoV-2 could have developed in the laboratory, as is often the case by conspiracy theorists. 

“We don’t know where the pathogen comes from, so the door to speculation is open – I don’t believe that there was a conscious change in the pathogen, but I cannot rule out this hypothesis 100 per cent either.”

It is not uncommon for more contagious variants to be produced in the laboratory, for example, to assess how dangerous a pathogen can potentially be for animals or humans and to investigate its biochemical properties. 

“But I don’t think much of this type of experiment,” says Mettenleiter. 

Nevertheless, changing viruses for research purposes is one of them. 

“We change them to develop vaccines, for example, but we take away their disease-causing properties,” he explains.

Nevertheless, with many experiments you can never predict exactly what will come of it. 

“Experiments always have a relatively open outcome, otherwise we wouldn’t have to do them, but our aim is always that viruses lose their pathogenic properties and not increase them.”

Expert: Wildlife market thesis just as plausible, but without evidence

Mettenleiter cannot rule out the fact that Corona could actually have spread to humans on the wild animal market in Wuhan, just as little as laboratory theory. 

“When many different animal species from different regions come together in one place, each animal brings its reservoir of pathogens with it – there can definitely be an exchange and also a jump on humans.”

The fact that dangerous situations arise from live animal markets has already been seen in connection with bird flu in Asia, which has spread through such markets. 

“It is possible, but the evidence for the wildlife market thesis is just as lacking as for all the other theses,” says the researcher. 

“Just because something is plausible does not mean that it was so.”

It is also possible that humans are infected via a bridge host, e.g. fur animals such as mink or raccoon dogs. It has already been proven in the Netherlands and Denmark that humans can be infected by infected mink. Tests at the FLI also showed that raccoon dogs are susceptible to the virus. 

“Based on the information available, I consider this to be a comprehensible and realistic scenario,” explains the expert. 

Nevertheless, Mettenleiter believes that the chances that we will ever find out where and how the pandemic actually started to be increasingly improbable. 

“The further we move away from the initial event, the more difficult it becomes to find the origins.”

Image Credit: Getty

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