The Mystery of Coronavirus Origin

Nasim Ahmed

Coronavirus has not stopped in its deadly journey across the globe. It first struck in China and then bared its fangs in Iran. Soon after it held Italy, UK and France in its vice-like grip. Although it has spread to all parts of the world, it has proved the deadliest in the United States.

No vaccines have yet been developed, and each country is trying to control the epidemic in its own particular way. The usual response is the use of masks and protective gear, social distancing and testing and quarantine of infected individuals.

The pandemic has shut down the world and caused incalculable damage to the global economy. It will be a long time before the world limps back to its normal rhythm of daily life. In the meanwhile questions continue to be raised about the origin of the virus.

From the early stages of the epidemic outbreak, conspiracy theories have abounded about how the disease broke out and why. To start with, it was claimed that the virus outbreak had its origin in the wild animals markets in the city of Wuhan. In support of this claim, pictures of Chinese men and women eating bats, snakes and rats were posted on the internet.

Later, it was said that the virus was part of a Chinese “covert biological weapons programme”, and that a Canadian-Chinese spy team had sent coronavirus to Wuhan. Various conspiracy theorists propagated that the virus was man-made with a dark purpose behind it.

However, as for pathogens escaping from the virology laboratory in Wuhan, according to experts, there is little possibility of this because its security is world class and it is headed by an internationally respected scientist, Professor Shi Zhengli, who has published many scientific articles in international journals. A number of American epidemiologists who have worked at the Wuhan Institute with Dr. Zhengli under an international exchange program praised her as an extremely hardworking scientist who would not permit any security lapses.

The laboratory has a record of pioneering work on another respiratory disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and identified its causative virus in 2003. Unlike the current coronavirus, SARS-related virus was quickly controlled and is believed to be a zoonotic, having sprung from horseshoe bats to humans.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, charged some time back that Covid-19 might have originated in the US. On 12 March, in a tweet he said that the US army brought the virus to Wuhan with the intention to halt the economic rise of China. Chinese daily The Global Times echoed Mr Zhao’s sentiment, saying that although the diplomat had made the claim in a “personal capacity”, his remarks were in harmony “with similar doubts raised by the Chinese public”.

Some experts, including Japanese and Taiwanese scientists, made the claim that the new coronavirus could have originated in the US. Another school of opinion propounded the view that the US military germ laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, may have been the original source of the virus, since the facility was “totally shut down” last year due to “an absence of safeguards to prevent pathogen leakages”.

Not to be left behind, in response to the propaganda about the US being a possible origin of the virus, US President Donald Trump referred to Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus”. Around the same time, Fox News quoted a Chinese research study saying that the coronavirus “accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan”. According to a report published by the Washington Post in April, two science diplomats from the US embassy paid several visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 and warned Washington about “inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats”.

However, in the latest development, the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence, which oversees American spy agencies, has said that it agrees with the prevailing scientific consensus regarding the natural origin of Covid-19. In a statement, it said: “The intelligence community will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

Governments all over the world are legitimately concerned that the source of the virus should be identified as soon as possible in order to prevent such outbreaks in the future. According to the respected magazine Nature, scientists are trying to identify the source of the coronavirus that has caused so much havoc around the world. The virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is thought to have jumped to humans from civets in 2002. It has been reported that many people infected early in the current outbreak worked in a live-animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The Washington Post recently published a detailed account of the nature of scientific research going on in the Wuhan Virology Institute. According to the report, Chinese investigators have established that bats are rich reservoirs of many deadly viruses, and therefore they have been the focus of their attention for the past ten years.

The SARS epidemic in 2003 is also believed to have started in China by another coronavirus resulting from consumption of the meat of the palm civet, an animal like the cat. Similarly, the virus that sparked the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), identified in Saudi Arabia 2012, arose from close contact with camels.

Scientists estimate that nearly three-quarter of all new disease-causing viruses originate in animal species. The viruses causing SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu and Ebola are known to have come from animals. Normally these viruses do not infect humans, but occasionally they mutate and acquire the ability to do so, as appears to be the case with the current novel corona virus. The transition of lethal viruses from animals to humans is facilitated by close interactions between the two species. In view of this, the medical community has recommended that close interactions between wild animals and humans should be minimized or eliminated.

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