The Wuhan Coronavirus - Did it come from a lab?

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The Wuhan Coronavirus has now entered the Philippines, according to this Guardian report. A man from Wuhan entered the country, after travelling through several cities, and then came down with fever symptoms. The woman travelling with him also has symptoms but they have receded. Medical staff in the Philippines possessed a testing kit and were able to identify the disease as the Wuhan coronavirus. Unfortunately, as the reports make clear, not everyone around China has Wuhan virus testing kits. Indonesia and Myanmar do not, as yet, have any way of testing if someone in their country has the Wuhan coronavirus. This is extremely worrying because if the health authorities of those cannot even identify if someone has the virus, it becomes even more difficult for them to contain it.

The rapid spread of the virus, and its rising death-toll, show that it is uniquely dangerous. It is almost perfect in its ability to spread from person to person, without that person showing any symptoms, for weeks before finally triggering an immune reaction and symptoms. Once the illness is underway, the person concerned has to literally fight for their life. Unfortunately, at the moment, many people in the mainstream media are still declaring that less than 2% of those infected die from the disease. In fact, the latest medical evidence paints a very different picture. This epidemiology report describes an analysis of patients in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital who had the Wuhan coronavirus in January. Of the 99 patients they were studying throughout January, 11 died of multiple organ failure. It's important to keep in mind that these patients were being given the highest level of care, and one-in-ten still died. Once hospitals are overloaded, during an epidemic, many people end up having to suffer the disease with no medical aid whatsoever.

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The Wuhan coronavirus is highly contagious and lethal. Knowing this, it is hard to believe that such a dangerous bug could someone live in its natural host animal without eventually destroying that host, and yet the horseshoe bat has this ability. It can live successfully with dangerous pathogens in its body, such as Ebola, and coronaviruses like the Wuhan virus. The reason the bat can do this is because it has the ability to tolerate the bug and not let it spread out of control in its body.

In the past, virologists have wondered if the bat actively hosts these dangerous viruses as a defence mechanism. In other words, if any predator tried to eat the bat, that predator could die a nasty death from contracting the disease that had been swimming around in the bat. It's a very clever way for a creature to avoid being predated. It's similar in technique to caterpillars that accumulate toxins they pick up from plants and store them in their bodies, so that they are not eaten.

For many years now, virologists have been fascinated with the way the horseshoe bat performs this trick of hosting dangerous pathogens without being killed by them. Scientists being scientists, many of these virologists, have been testing and altering dangerous pathogens, such as SARS, to find out exactly what genes in the disease allows it to remain dormant in a mammal, such as a bat. Here is one such scientific paper on the subject, Bat severe acute respiratory syndrome-like coronavirus ORF3b homologues display different interferon antagonist activities. Here is an analysis of the Wuhan coronavirus. The report explains how closely the Wuhan coronavirus is related to a bat coronavirus. To quote from the paper's abstract, 'Furthermore, it was found that nCoV-2019 is 96% identical at the whole genome level to a bat coronavirus'.

There are many teams in China, and abroad, who are focussing on the Wuhan coronavirus. They probably know more about how it works than anyone else alive. The Chinese teams have been able to study its emergence in detail. It's extremely useful for the medical researchers that such a world expert on bat coronaviruses is on hand… but this is hardly a surprise, as several of them works in a level 4 biohazard lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology which is only ten kilometres from the Hunan Seafood Market, the official ground-zero of the disease.


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It is an astonishing coincidence that the epicentre of the global outbreak of a hitherto unknown, but highly contagious and deadly SARS-like virus, one that's almost genetically identical to one found in bats, is a fifteen-minute drive from a building that houses deadly SARS-like bat viruses. What's more, those bat viruses in the Wuhan Institute of Virology aren't just sitting in sealed-up freezers. Instead, they're being actively grown, studied and genetically altered, in order to work out how they survive in bats.

It would be understandable, at this point, that some readers might start getting suspicious. If the virus did come from someone in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it would explain why the virus is novel (because it was created in their lab), why it had SARS features and a long incubation period (because that was exactly what they were studying) and why an altered Yunnan bat virus was somehow transported to central Wuhan (because someone at the lab inadvertently took it down-town).

Some independent observers have been studying the Wuhan coronavirus genetic data and have noticed that it seems to be a Frankenstein-like combination of several bat SARS viruses, taking elements from several viruses to maximise its ability to spread, and incubate. This could have happened naturally, as viruses do mutate, but the odds are low. The likelihood of it coming naturally from bats must be very low, because if bats had been harbouring such a powerful disease for millennia, surely people would have contracted it before now?

In case anyone thinks I am convinced that the virus came from a lab, I am not. I simply think it is an intriguing coincidence and possibly the most viable, hypothetical solution to explain what has happened. At the moment, there is no clear evidence that the Wuhan coronavirus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In conclusion, we may never know what truly happened. Personally, I have always been strangely drawn to pandemic stories, from Stephen King's The Stand to the films Contagion and Outbreak, the book The Hot Zone and others. They always seemed to be, in my mind, an inevitability, a combination of human being's ingenuity, short-sighted self-interest and hubris. Let's hope they weren't truly prescient.