In November and December 2019 a novel corona virus began circulating in China. The world -and China’s citizens- first learned of this thanks to a group of Chinese whistle blowers , including Opthamologist Dr Li Wenliang, who would ultimately die of the virus. These whistle blowers were denounced by their administrators and some of them -such as Dr. Wenliang- received a police warning. After he died from COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 there was a wave of popular outrage, and sympathy for his pregnant widow, which caused authorities to censor Chinese social media platforms. So the Chinese state sought to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, much as it once did with SARS. But where did the virus come from? And what do we know about its origins?
Wet markets have often been associated with the start of earlier outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS. This makes sense because these environments bring together a diversity of wild animals that may carry unknown pathogens. Packed into cages in poorly ventilated areas, viruses can passage across the species barrier in a way that would be difficult to achieve in the wild. When the outbreak first appeared in China, many people first looked at cases that appeared to be associated with a local wet market. But as earlier cases became known, the tie to the wet market lacked strong support in the data, although a recent study perhaps strengthens this case.
Attention turned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which reportedly had collected novel bat viruses, including some from a cave in Yunnan. Lab leaks have caused pandemics before. For example, in 1977 an influenza pandemic swept the world. Because the virus was nearly identical to historical samples from an earlier outbreak, there have been suspicions that it began as a result of a lab leak in the Soviet Union. Gain of function experiments -in which scientists deliberately increase either the transmissibility or infectiousness of an infectious agent have been controversial for many years for this reason. Accidents have happened.
Nearly a decade ago I was attending an influenza conference in Oxford, and happened to have breakfast with three well-known figures in the field of influenza virology. One of the people at the table was an outspoken advocate for gain of function research. This person’s work had attracted international controversy on this issue. He/she was an outspoken, confident person, who was more than willing to talk about the gain of function debate, and appeared to enjoy both the attention and the controversy. I thought that this person was eloquent, informed and generous in sharing their thoughts with a complete nobody like me. I was enjoying the conversation immensely. But as the discussion went on, another person at the table -a legend in influenza virology- became increasingly glum looking as he or she picked at their eggs. I felt increasingly awkward, and noticed that my charming colleague didn’t seem to be noticing their colleagues’ withdrawal from the conversation.
Finally, the gain of function researcher turned to another person -a German colleague- and said words to the effect: “You understand how these constraints are maddening.” And this German researcher said (as best as I can recall): “Yes, but I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous as you do.” One thing that I loved when I used to lecture in Germany (actually, I loved everything about Germany) was how frank my students were in giving feedback, and this response was true to form. What I took from the debate was the extent to which gain of function research worried even those people with the best practical knowledge of laboratory work with influenza viruses. As time has passed, there has been increasingly skepticism that gain of function research will produce knowledge at all worthy of the risks. But did the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fact have novel corona virus sequences, and -if so- what kind of research was being done with these strains? …