The Wuhan Coronavirus - the military & the scientists

In Wuhan, China, the Chinese government has completed the construction of a new 'hospital' to treat people infected with the Wuhan coronavirus. The construction of this 'hospital' was done at breakneck speed and was completed in little over a week. It is made from prefabricated units which have been fixed together, to create a huge, Lego-like building.

Unfortunately, this 'hospital' may not be a hospital at all in the normal sense, which is why I've been putting the word in quotes. The following video reports that the hospital seems to be under the control of the military, is staffed by soldiers and military medical staff, and is constructed so that those inside cannot move about freely, or leave. Unfortunately, such a setup will remind many readers of the human containment facilities in Xinjiang province. As one commentator states, if the 'hospital' is under military control, doctors inside it may be able to experiment on infected citizens and test drugs on them without normal legal approval.

Also in the news, the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus is still being debated. The rumours that the coronavirus came from a lab don't seem to be going away. I wrote about this matter in this previous blog article. I made it clear in the article that I haven't discovered clear evidence that the coronavirus came from a lab… but the proximity of a bat SARS lab to the outbreak, and the nature of the work going on in that lab, understandably raises eyebrows.

In an attempt to find reliable information about the whole subject of chimeric viruses created in labs, I've been hunting through the science magazines and science journal sites. This article discusses the matter at length and includes the quote that, '[molecular biologist Richard] Ebright tells ScienceInsider that the 2019-nCoV data are, “consistent with entry into the human population as either a natural accident or a laboratory accident.” This is a logical statement. The article mentions an earlier article in the venerable science journal Nature, entitled 'Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world's most dangerous pathogens'. This article reports on the wave of new biohazard labs being built around the globe. The Nature article talks at length about the Wuhan biohazard lab and the concerns over its safety levels. There is also ample discussion in the article, focussing on the question of whether there really is a need for so many biohazard labs around the globe, and discussing concerns that some of these labs could act as bioweapons facilities.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all the articles I've found on this subject is an article on TheScientist website entitled, 'Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate'. The first paragraph of this article states:

"Ralph Baric, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last week (November 9) published a study on his team’s efforts to engineer a virus with the surface protein of the SHC014 coronavirus, found in horseshoe bats in China, and the backbone of one that causes human-like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in mice. The hybrid virus could infect human airway cells and caused disease in mice, according to the team’s results, which were published in Nature Medicine."

This is exactly the sort of Frankenstein SARS bat virus that I talked about in this earlier blog article. It fits very closely with the Wuhan coronavirus. The relevant scientific paper, with Ralph Baric as the primary author, is entitled 'A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence'. Here is a quote from its introduction:

"Therefore, to examine the emergence potential (that is, the potential to infect humans) of circulating bat CoVs, we built a chimeric virus encoding a novel, zoonotic CoV spike protein—from the RsSHC014-CoV sequence that was isolated from Chinese horseshoe bats1—in the context of the SARS-CoV mouse-adapted backbone. The hybrid virus allowed us to evaluate the ability of the novel spike protein to cause disease independently of other necessary adaptive mutations in its natural backbone. Using this approach, we characterized CoV infection mediated by the SHC014 spike protein in primary human airway cells and in vivo, and tested the efficacy of available immune therapeutics against SHC014-CoV. Together, the strategy translates metagenomics data to help predict and prepare for future emergent viruses."

In other words, Baric and his team made a chimeric virus, a mutant version of the bat SARS coronavirus with parts added to make the virus work in a mouse. Mice are often used as a test case before testing on humans because mice have similar metabolisms to humans. The scientists made this chimeric virus to see what it would do to human airway cells. This is known as 'gain-of-function' research. Not surprisingly, as TheScientist article states, there's been a lot of argument, within science, as to whether this is a good idea. The US government has made its position clear (at least on the face of it) in this leaflet (pdf). The scientists concerned might have been doing the work for good reasons, to 'predict and prepare for future emergencies', but if they accidentally released such a chimeric virus into the world, it would cause terrible damage. I'm sure that this argument has intensified, now that the Wuhan coronavirus is spreading across our planet.