India joins global push for Covid origin probe

Updated on May 29, 2021 12:53 AM IST

Biden’s directive to the US intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect information to facilitate a definitive conclusion on the origin of the Coronavirus has angered China, which said on Thursday that the US is playing politics.

China again dismissed the theory that the virus could have leaked from a laboratory. (File photo)
China again dismissed the theory that the virus could have leaked from a laboratory. (File photo)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

India on Friday backed calls for further investigation into the origin of Covid-19, and sought the cooperation of China and other parties for such studies, days after US President Joe Biden gave intelligence agencies 90 days to submit a fresh report at a time when scientists are seeking deeper examination of a theory that the virus may have originated in a lab.

Biden’s directive to the US intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect information to facilitate a definitive conclusion on the origin of Sars-CoV-2 has angered China, which said on Thursday that the US is playing politics. The country, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, again dismissed the theory that it could have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that a World Health Organization (WHO)-led study into a virus’s origin was an “important first step”, and more studies were needed to reach “robust conclusions”.

“WHO convened global study on the origin of Covid-19 is an important first step. It stressed the need for next phase studies as also for further data and studies to reach robust conclusions,” Bagchi said in a statement. Without naming China, he added, “The follow up of the WHO report and further studies deserve the understanding and cooperation of all.”

This week, multiple news reports have spoken of several angles the American intelligence is looking at to establish where the virus came from. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Biden’s directions to the intelligence agencies came on the basis of yet-to-be examined evidence that requires computer analysis. Citing people aware of the situation, the report said that this evidence could include databases of Chinese communications, movement of lab workers and the pattern of the outbreak of Covid-19 in and around Wuhan.

On May 23, a report by the Wall Street Journal cited current and former officials to describe intelligence reports that determined that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.

The report notes that while this in itself was not enough to link to a lab leak, the timing and the number of people who fell sick and their ties to the lab plugs into several circumstantial clues that strengthen the theory.

A WHO-led team, which spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February, said in a report issued in late March that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway”.

The scientific community has been divided over what to make of the virus’s origin clues till now.(Hindustan Times)
The scientific community has been divided over what to make of the virus’s origin clues till now.(Hindustan Times)


But, at the same time, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the team “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data” relating to the outbreak at the Wuhan wet market and that the they had not been able to carry out adequate assessment of the lab leak possibility. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions,” he said at the time.

WHO is currently reviewing the recommendations in this report to prepare a proposal for the director-general on the next studies to be carried out.

Keep lab theory on table

The scientific community has been divided over what to make of the virus’s origin clues till now. In early May, science writer Nicholas Wade cited existing research to support the need to keep the lab leak theory on the table.

Wade included several arguments: One, if the virus was naturally found in the famous horseshoe bats of Yunnan, how, or whether at all, did it travel to Wuhan, at least 1,500km away; two, how the Sars-CoV-2 virus appeared to have come fully evolved to optimally target humans, unlike the Sars-CoV virus, responsible for South Asia Respiratory Syndrome, that evolved over time; and three – a unique protein folding known as the furin cleavage site in this virus, which has not been found in other betacoronaviruses.

Some scientists have disputed the biological inferences being drawn, particularly in the context of the furin cleavage site. “FCSs (furin cleavage sites) are abundant, including being highly prevalent in coronaviruses. While SARS-CoV-2 is the first example of a SARS virus with an FCS, other betacoronaviruses (the genus for SARS-CoV-2) have FCSs, including MERS and HKU1,” wrote immunologist and infectious disease genomics specialist at Scripps Research Institute, Kristian G Andersen, in a tweet on May 10.

The questions about what clues China may hold are further strengthened by the lack of a resurgence in cases in the country. A country with the world’s highest population, China has recorded no new wave of infections since when the outbreak began.

It recorded 7,280 new cases at its peak, on February 14, 2020, and the only time infections rose again in any significant manner was in mid January, 2021, when the 7-day average of new cases was a little under 2,000 for a few days.

Need definitive conclusion

In March, Biden tasked the US intelligence community to prepare a report on the origin of Covid-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a “laboratory accident”.

Biden said on Wednesday that he had received the report earlier this month, and asked for an additional follow-up as the intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but hadn’t reached a definitive conclusion.

Biden asked the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days”.

As part of this follow up, Biden outlined “areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China”. He said the US will work with like-minded partners around the world to “press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”.

On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry responded to Biden’s move by saying the US was playing politics as the WHO study had concluded the “lab leak” theory was unlikely. Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also dismissed this theory as a conspiracy.

“Some people in the US completely ignore facts and science,” Zhao said.

China is known to deploy a strong infection suppression and tracking strategy, at times carrying out surge testing of cities full of millions of people within a period of days.

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