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Coronavirus diary – Part 7

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
20 May 2020   |   3:55 am
The debate about whether COVID-19 is natural or genetically modified has continued unabated. There have been claims, counter-claims and outright disclaimers as the virus takes its toll on humans.

Brazil’s military, firefighters and Civil Defense members disinfect each other after cleaning a bus station in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: DOUGLAS MAGNO / AFP

The debate about whether COVID-19 is natural or genetically modified has continued unabated. There have been claims, counter-claims and outright disclaimers as the virus takes its toll on humans. These controversies illustrate a great deal the complexity of the ongoing pandemic. In this analysis, I present some of the points at issue in line with my objective of helping to find solution to our common affliction. I shall sum up the arguments of the science community along two patterns, namely, natural school and the genetic school. Also, there is a leadership nuance in the United States which feeds into the scientific complex. Then, I shall leave you to your judgment while re-echoing the threats to the future of humanity.

Scientists differ on the origin of the COVID-19; but no disagreement on China as the point of dispersal. Two animal sources are noted in the debate. These are the pangolin and bat. Pangolin (the anteater animal) coronaviruses are only 88-90 per cent the same as COVID-19 with more than 3,000 nucleotide changes that nullify it as “a reservoir species and intermediate host to COVID-19”. Nevertheless, “the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of a pangolin coronavirus is nearly identical to the same structure in COVID-19, having only a single amino acid difference”. In fact, Scientists from Guangzhou have argued pangolin’s potential to play host to COVID-19 in an article published in Nature, a scientific outlet on May7, 2020. They further argue that bat has about 96 per cent sequence identity to COVID-19 at the hereditary level and therefore bat is the native host of COVID-19.

Peter Forster, a geneticist at Cambridge who has analysed the sequences of the virus genome from China and other places has identified three dominant strains. At the inception, strain A and B were in circulation, a strain C then developed from B. Interestingly, the strain with the closest genetic similarity to bat coronavirus is not strain A, most prevalent at the beginning in Wuhan but those similar to type B strain in early cases in the southern Guangdong province. Forster concludes that the early genome frequencies do not favour Wuhan as source more than other parts of China. This raises the question of whether Wuhan is the actual origin of the virus but by no means the end of the controversy.

The accident theory argues that scientists at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) engaged in experiments of “gene splicing” of bat coronavirus that gave a window for the escape of the virus to affect humans. Alternatively, it is argued that “sloppy biosecurity” among laboratory staff may have led to inadvertent release of the virus. The laboratory in WIV researching bat coronaviruses is said to be of topmost grade biocontainment quality (Biosecurity Level 4). Wuhan Centre for Disease Control with bat coronavirus specimen is a level 2 facility located near the seafood market claimed by Chinese authorities as the origin of the virus.

This theory is incredible for a section of the science community. A team led by the California-based microbiologist, Professor Kristian Andersen, notes that “the genetic data irrefutably shows that [Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone”. It then points to a plausible origin, that is, “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic [animal to human] transfer; and natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.” Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization knowledgeable in zoonotic transfer stresses the point that a modification of the virus will leave a trail in the gene sequences. James Le Duc, the head of the Galveston National Laboratory, further lends credence to the natural school. He avers that COVID-19 is natural on account of its similarity to coronavirus of the bat family.

There is a counter claim that seems to undermine the foregoing. It is from both Professor Luc Montagnier and Dr Judy Markovits. Professor Montagnier, a French and Nobel Prize winner in Medicine who co-discovered the AIDS virus with Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, claims that COVID-19 is the result of an attempt to manufacture a vaccine against the AIDS virus. He further notes that the presence of elements of HIV and malaria germ in the genome of the new virus is unnatural. However, he has been rebuffed by some of his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Markovits is the author of the Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith and the Promise of Science. In response to the question of whether COVID-19 was created in the laboratory and any ideas of where it occurred, she explains that: “I wouldn’t use the word created, but you can’t say naturally occurring; if it was by way of the laboratory. So it’s very clear this virus was manipulated. This family of viruses was manipulated and studied in a laboratory where the animals were taken into the laboratory. And this is what was released, whether deliberate or not. That cannot be naturally occurring. Somebody didn’t go to a market, get a bat. The virus didn’t jump directly to humans. That’s not how it works. That’s accelerated viral evolution. If it was a natural occurrence, it would take it up to eight hundred years to occur. This occurred from SARS-1 within a decade. That’s not naturally occurring…Oh, yeah. I’m sure it occurred between the North Carolina Laboratories, Fort Detrick, U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Disease and the Wuhan Laboratory. Three point seven million dollars flowed from the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. to the Wuhan lab in China; the same lab where many people have said that this coronavirus infection first originated. We also now know that in aid, the department associated with the National Institutes of Health, of which Dr. Anthony Fauci is in control, had already been conducting experiments with the Wuhan lab in the past in regard to Coronavirus. If Dr. Anthony Fauci cannot be honest with the public about his connection to this lab, then Fauci has to go.”

Chris McGreal, writing in the international edition of The Guardian of London, May 14, 2020, takes a contrary view of Markovits’ position. According to him, “Seen from another perspective, the viral video of Dr Judy Markovits blaming the coronavirus outbreak on a conspiracy led by big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization is the work of a discredited crank. But scientists fear that does not make her claims any less dangerous because, in an age of conspiracy theories, those about medicine have unusual potency”. Mike Baker’s review lends credence to McGreal’s. Baker reviewed the advent of the virus in the US in the New York Times of May 16, 2020. He quotes Dr Trevor Bedford, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The latter position is that “There’s no hallmarks of it having been manipulated in a lab…I think that’s definitive.” However, Baker notes that he did not rule out the accidental theory but believed in the zoonotic transfer at Wuhan market as the plausible account.

However, there is circumstantial evidence of foreknowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is what I have called above a leadership nuance. Perhaps, it is a coincidence that successive American presidents, from George Walker Bush to Barack Obama, forewarned about an impending pandemic. In 2014, Obama stressed the need for America’s preparedness to deal with a pandemic.

In the same vein, a 2011 American film, “Contagion”, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, had its plot on a virus that spreads through fomites, the concomitant panic and the race for a vaccine to halt the virus. Kristen Rogers of CNN says “Sound like a plot we’re in the middle of?” However, she notes that its “prescience” is a product of consultation with representatives of the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and other related health institutions. At any rate, this is highly plausible.

However, we have something to worry about; way back in August last year, the science community warmed about the future of bioweapons. According to Sarah Knapton, Science editor, Researchers from Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) have apprised the world of a future of biological weapons “built which target individuals in a specific ethnic group based on their DNA”. This is possible due to advancement in genetic engineering and policy makers need to anticipate this future.

Akhaine is a professor of Political Science, Lagos State University.