Wuhan lab leak ‘now the most likely origin of Covid’, MPs told

Dr Alina Chan says there is also a risk that Covid-19 is an engineered virus

By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor, The Telegraph, 15 December 2021

A laboratory leak is now the more likely origin of Covid, MPs have heard, because after two years of searching an animal host has never been found.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Select Committee, Dr Alina Chan, a specialist in gene therapy and cell engineering at MIT and Harvard, said there was also a risk that Covid-19 was an engineered virus.

Dr Chan, said: “I think the lab origin is more likely than not. Right now it’s not safe for people who know about the origin of the pandemic to come forward. But we live in an era where there is so much information being stored that it will eventually come out.

“We have heard from many top virologists that a genetically engineered origin is reasonable and that includes virologists who made modifications to the first Sars virus.

“We know this virus has a unique feature, called the furin cleavage site, and without this feature there is no way this would be causing this pandemic.

“A proposal was leaked showing that EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were developing a pipeline for inserting novel furin cleavage sites. So, you find these scientists who said in early 2018 ‘I’m going to put horns on horses’ and at the end of 2019 a unicorn turns up in Wuhan city.”

The furin cleavage point on Covid-19 is part of the spike protein which helps it to enter cells.

Spike proteins are little grappling hooks which lock onto receptors on human cells. They have two sections, a binding section and a cell-entry section.

Once attached, the virus makes use of the enzyme furin – which is present in human cells – to snip away the bound section, leaving a space for the cell-entry section of the spike protein to fuse with the cell membrane and get inside. It is the reason Covid-19 is so infectious.

Viscount Ridley, who co-authored a book on the origin of the virus with Dr Chan, said he also believed a lab leak was now the likely origin.

Lord Ridley told MPs: “I also think it’s more likely than not because we have to face the fact after two months we knew the origins of Sars, and after a couple of months we knew Mers was though through camels, but after two years we still haven’t found a single infected animal that could be the progenitor, and that’s incredibly surprising.

“We need to find out so we can prevent the next pandemic. We need to know whether we should be tightening up work in laboratories or whether we should be tightening up regulations related to wildlife markets. At the moment we are really not doing either.

“We also need to know to deter bad actors who are watching this episode and thinking that unleashing a pandemic is something they could get away with.

“We know now that experiments were being done at biosecurity level 2 (similar to a dentist’s office) that resulted in 10,000 times increases in infectivity of viruses and three or four times their lethality. The important thing is to stop doing these experiments that are risky.”

Peter Daszak’s interests declared ‘too little too late’ 

During the session, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, was also criticised over a letter published by the journal in 2020 which dismissed the lab leak theory as a ‘conspiracy theory’ and effectively shut down the debate into the lab leak theory.

The letter was authored by Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth alliance, who had worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) engineering bat coronaviruses.

Yet despite the close link, it took 16 months for the Lancet to publish a memo setting out Mr Daszak’s conflicts of interest.

Aaron Bell said the memorandum declaring Mr Daszak’s interests had been ‘too little too late.’

Mr Horton argued it had taken more than a year to ‘persuade’ Mr Daszak to declare that EcoHealth was working with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“We ask everybody to declare their competing interest and we take those statements on trust and in this case regrettably the authors claimed they had no competing interest and of course the implication there were indeed competing interests that were significant, particularly in relation to Peter Daszak,” said Mr Horton.

“We take declarations of conflicts of interests on trust. We quickly became aware of Peter Daszak’s conflict of interest and we ended up having a debate with him because his view was ‘Look, I’m an expert working in China on bat coronaviruses and that isn’t a competing interest, it makes me an expert.’

“But in the court of public opinion, that is a competing interest you should declare and it took us over a year to persuade him to declare his full competing interest.”

Mr Horton also said that the lab leak was now: ‘a hypothesis that should be taken seriously and needs to be further investigated.’