Covid-19 Accidental Release Theory: Maybe Not So “Batty” After All…

Advanced Warning: This article is longer than usual and contains more technical language and concepts. I created a glossary at the end to help with new terms and concepts… If anyone is more scientifically versed in this subject I’d love to hear your perspective and expertise! Also any scientific corrections if I misunderstood something 🙂

Since Covid-19 emerged a little over a year ago, it’s been pretty clear that while the virus poses a significant public health risk, much of the hype has been overblown for political reasons, many of which I covered in detail before in previous posts. Now, with several vaccines rolling out and many becoming fully vaccinated, the country is starting to open up again and becoming more cautiously optimistic. However we are not out of the woods yet, and the scientific community is doing research not only in stopping the current pandemic, but preventing future ones. This all sounds like great news, except for one not so little hurdle: Pressure to reach politically desirable conclusions! Science should be an impartial, politically neutral process of discovering more about our world and bettering humanity, but as it’s done by people it is tainted with our all too human bias more than many care to admit. Questions still remain about how the virus was able to become such a virulent strain and infect the globe.

There are two main theories for how Covid-19 originated:

1. It was transmitted naturally from a non-human animal species, in this case a bat, to humans: This theory is the “mainstream” one and supports the idea that in Wuhan, China bats being sold in the wet markets over there had the coronavirus and it jumped to humans. Many viruses do this naturally and there are numerous examples with other coronaviruses such as the earlier SARS1 which causes an outbreak in 2002 and MERS which caused an outbreak in 2012, both originating in bats. As it is very common for viruses to mutate or recombine and evolve changes so they go from one species to another, on its face, this theory seems very plausible (and the mot politically desirable!).

2. It was accidentally leaked from a laboratory studying novel coronaviruses during research: This theory is considered the conspiracy fringe theory by the mainstream media and liberal organizations such as the CDC and WHO. Why then, is it even worthy of consideration then? This is where more scientific evidence comes in, as well as political motives for favoring the natural theory. Despite mainstream rejection, there are several compelling arguments supporting the lab accident theory enough to while not “prove” it, strongly favor it.

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An article from The Bulletin titled “The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” lays out the case for it most likely being a laboratory accident in deeper scientific detail and is worth the read! As it has some very technical language and concepts, I’ll lay out some of the most compelling arguments they make to support the possibility it could have been accidentally released.

The Point of Origin

The mainstream theory argues that Covid-19 originated from bats in the wet market in Wuhan, China. Cases did indeed begin in Wuhan, however there is evidence potential earlier cases in Wuhan were not linked to the wet market or bats. However, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is in Wuhan, and studies coronaviruses similar to Covid-19. Other geographic concerns arise too as the closest variants of coronaviruses to Covid-19 are in a species of bat in Yunnan. Evidence would support a naturally occurring jump if people around Yunnan were among the first cases, and that species of bat doesn’t travel too far. Wuhan is 1,500 km away from Yunnan, way too far for those bats to travel. Of course, someone who was in Yunnan could have traveled to Wuhan that was infected, but why then was no one infected by them along the way for a fairly infectious virus? Geographically speaking, it is possible, but less plausible for Covid-19 to have originated in bats so far away then come to Wuhan, whereas there is a lab studying viruses just like it in Wuhan.

Wuhan, Center of Coronavirus Outbreak, Is Being Cut Off by Chinese  Authorities - The New York Times

One of These Things is Not Like The Other?

Some argue that there are no signs the virus was manipulated by humans. Indeed, in the past it was more obvious for scientists to tell if a virus’ genome was “cut and pasted”. Now however, it can be done undetectably through what is called “seamless” methods or a process called serial passage, where viruses are grown in a series of cell cultures until the right changes are made. With both methods of engineering a virus one can’t tell it whether was made in a lab or not. This sounds like evidence for the natural occurrence theory, but it also means that you can’t conclude it wasn’t lab made due to the absence of detectable signs of artificial creation. This simply means it can be done in a lab without being detected.

NIH researchers identify key genomic features that could differentiate  SARS-CoV-2 from other coronaviruses that cause less severe disease |  National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Mousey In The Middle?

Viruses that jump from non-human animals to humans often have an intermediary host. This is another species the virus evolves to infect before going onto infecting humans. In the SARS1 outbreak that host was an animal called a civet. For the MERS outbreak the intermediary host was a camel. It is less likely for viruses to do one big leap from animals such as bats, directly to humans. However, no intermediary host was found for Covid-19 in nature. The more likely explanation could be that if the virus was designed to target human cells such a leap wouldn’t be needed and there actually was a known host: Laboratory grown “humanized” mice processing the (human) target protein for the virus! The natural way for the leap to occur is not impossible, but much more implausible.

A SARS-CoV-2 Infection Model in Mice Demonstrates Protection by  Neutralizing Antibodies - ScienceDirect

Signs of Artificial Manipulation

Every virus has a very specific structure that binds to a target protein on the surface of the cell it wants to infect. It is like a key to a specific lock to get inside a locked door, in this case, a cell. Once inside, the virus insets its own genetic code into the cell so the cell itself will make more of the virus. Viruses then burst out of the cell, killing the cell and go on to infect more cells repeating the process again, and again and again throughout the body. For Covid-19, it has a specific spike protein as its “key” to bind to a specific protein on human respiratory cells called ACE2. Another part of the spike protein then helps Covid-19 fuse with the cell’s membrane once let inside. These two components, called S1 and S2 respectively, need to be separated for each to do its task and the site where that happens is unique to Covid-19 compared with other coronaviruses. This very specific spot where both parts are separated is called a Furin cleavage site, but other coronaviruses split their spike proteins in a different location using a different way. Human cells have a protein called Furin that cleaves both hence the name. A mutation could have happened to Covid-19 to give it this unique site, but it is highly unlikely and not common in viruses like it. If it evolved gradually there would be evidence in case histories of people who got sick. As other viruses don’t need a Furin cleavage site to do the exact same thing, there is no evolutionary pressure to naturally select for such a site. However, the virology community is very familiar with well known literature on how to make more virulent strains by creating a Furin cleavage site in experiments to develop vaccines and get ahead of the game in anticipating naturally occurring deadlier strains.

Further oddities are in regards to the structure of the Furin cleavage site itself. As you may remember from school, DNA has four nucleic acids: Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine represented by the letters A, T, C, and G (RNA has Uracil, or U instead of T for Thymine). A codon is a combo of three of these letters and stands in for an amino acid. Stringing several codons together which make up different amino acids, gives the instructions or recipe for a protein. In short, three nucleic acids make a codon, codons make amino acids and amino acids make proteins. Think of it like letters make words, and words make sentences and so on. Different organisms can have preferred codons for making amino acids as several different codons can code for one amino acid. A part of the Furin cleavage site has the amino acid arginine, which can made with codons CGT, CGC or CGG in humans. CGG is the least popular codon to make arginine in other viruses but is popular for humans and guess what else? Covid-19! Why does Covid-19 share a preferred codon that humans use but not viruses related to it? In fact, it has two CGG codons in a row in the Furin cleavage site and this is not found in any other coronavirus like Covid-19! Guess which codon is also popular to use in labs studying viruses in humans? CGG…

Hidden States of the COVID-19 Spike Protein - Latest News - Texas Advanced  Computing Center

Laboratory Safety Concerns and Other Cases of Escapes

Laboratories that work with such dangerous biohazards like deadly virus strains have varying degrees of stringent safety levels depending on the risk level. These go through levels 1 through 4 with 4 being the most stringent. Most scientists work in conditions below level 4, as level 4 requires a full hazmat suit and working in closed airtight chambers making work cumbersome, hard to see and twice as long to do. The labs working on coronaviruses can have safety levels around level 2, the same as the average dentist’s office in terms of biohazard safety! Even in more stringent labs, viruses have escaped and cased real harm including smallpox, and SARS1 which escaped not one, but four times from a lab in Beijing! It is very plausible for an accidental escape to happen even in the best labs, so even more so in a lab with less stringent precautions. Wuhan’s lab had level 4 facilities but these were subpar upon inspections and researchers try to work at a levels that are less stringent for convenience.

I study coronavirus in a highly secured biosafety lab – here's why I feel  safer here than in the world outside

Research into Viruses Like Covid-19 is Becoming More Common

With all the extreme risk involved and the easy potential for deadly new strains to fall into the wrong hands, why on earth would anyone want to make more deadly strains? The answer lies in being prepared ahead of time for a naturally occurring one. If we can make a vaccine for a deadlier strain we create, it would likely work on a similar deadly strain naturally occurring in the future, or at least we’d know how to make vaccines faster. The reason why we were able to get Covid-19 vaccines so fast is thanks to this type of research. Many virologists do experiments called Gain of Function Experiments that are designed to make viruses more virulent and transmissible to serve as models to make vaccines against. As explained earlier, there are several signs Covid-19 has of having been used in gain of function experiments in labs such as that unique codon sequence CGG that is commonly used in labs but not naturally occurring as well as its spike protein’s Furin cleavage site also not naturally occurring in coronaviruses like it but commonly used in such experiments. With such research being so popular, it is statistically more probable for more accidental leaks to happen for labs the world over of deadly strains. Just as it is common in nature for viruses to leap species to species, now it is probable for viruses in countless labs to be released by accident. Covid-19 shows several signs of being artificially manipulated like others in labs and while is it possible some could have sprung up naturally it is far less likely several did all at once!

73 Indian Pharmacist Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

Science isn’t The Only Thing In This Debate

Sadly scientific controversies are often beyond just scientific: When Galileo had his dispute with the Catholic Church, you can bet it wasn’t just theology on the table! Politics and science have had a very troubled past and science is not free by any means from the desires of others without pure motives of inquiry and discovery. By arguing Covid-19 was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab, it puts China in a very bad light and had deep political ramifications for international relations with China. As it was clearly seen early on in the pandemic, associating Covid-19 with China at all was deemed politically incorrect including calling it Wuhan virus despite many other pathogens being named after places, such as Zika virus, Ebola, Spanish Flu, Lyme disease etc… Of course unfairly scapegoating one place or people is wrong as said before, ANY lab can have a leak, not just labs in China! However the WHO has ties with China and others who denounced an accidental release theory have had conflicts of interest with labs like Wuhan’s involving funding and grants which could be jeopardized if they come to unsavory conclusions. However covering it up to protect the interests of one group only hurts the global community as if it is true it was accidental and not naturally occurring, other labs around the world should learn from their mistakes so it won’t happen again. With so much pressure to deny an accidental release possibility, the adamant refusals to even consider such a possibility are not based in science but political bias and unethical coverup.

These are just a few points brought up in that very long but excellent article! To read further into the arguments in detail and probably explained better than I’ve done, go take a look 🙂 I’ll leave you with this though: They clearly state from the beginning there is no conclusive proof either way for Covid-19 being naturally occurring or a laboratory leak. Just strong evidence pointing towards what they argue, to be an accidental release by a lab. So I’ll leave it with you to decide for yourself what you think happened. You can easily find arguments against their analysis by any mainstream media, the CDC and WHO. But don’t let arguments from authority sway you: Let the science do the persuading!


Glossary

ACE2: The protein on the cell’s surface Covid-19’s spike protein binds with to infect the cell.

Amino Acid: Building blocks that make up proteins, made with codons. Humans have 20 different types to make our thousands of proteins.

Biohazard Level: Laboratory safety levels according to risk of biohazards such as deadly pathogens. These levels go from 1 to 4, 4 being most stringent.

Codon: A string of three nucleotides that code for an amino acid. Importantly in this case, different organisms can have different preferences for which codons to use to code for specific amino acids. Example: CGG is preferred to code for arginine in humans but not naturally in other coronaviruses except Covid-19, and it is common in labs to use human codons.

Coronaviruses: A family of virus species Covid-19 is part of along with others such as MERS and SARS. Research has been done pre-Covid with other coronaviruses that helped with Covid-19 research.

DNA: Deoxyribonucleic Acid. The “building block of life” and carries genetic instructions for organisms.

Furin Cleavage Site: The site where Covid-19’s spike protein can be split into two separate units, one to bind with the target protein on the cell’s surface and the other to fuse with the cell membrane afterwards. Other coronaviruses use a different site than Covid-19. Furin is the protein on human cells that separates both parts.

Gain of Function Experiment: An experiment done in laboratories to make a virus more potent and contagious so it can be used to develop vaccines for deadly strains.

Humanized Mouse: A laboratory bred mouse that has the human version of the ACE2 protein Covid-19 binds with to infect the host organism used in research. This is an ethical alternative to testing on human subjects.

Intermediary Host: An animal that is the organism between a virus jumping from the initial host species to humans. This was not found yet for Covid-19 but known for other coronaviruses. Example: SARS1 jumped from bats, to civets, then to humans. Civets are the intermediary host.

Mutation: A change in the genetic code of an organism often by accident that alters it. Viruses mutate often creating various strains.

Natural Selection: A process where certain traits are selected for in nature if they give an organism an advantage over others without the trait. Viruses can develop traits that give it an edge over a competing strain, but it is more random and less precise than specifically targeted traits created in labs.

Nucleotide: Basic building blocks of DNA and RNA, three make a codon to code for an amino acid. They are Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine. Uracil takes the place of Thymine in RNA.

RNA: Ribonucleic Acid. Some viruses use RNA instead of DNA. RNA can be coded into DNA and vice versa so scientists take advantage of this as it is easier to work with DNA.

Seamless Methods: Ways to alter viral genomes without it being obvious the virus has been artificially manipulated by scientists.

Serial Passage: A method in laboratories for developing viruses by growing them successively in a series of cultures until desired traits are achieved. Both seamless methods and serial passage can make it unknowable if a virus has been altered by humans so one cannot conclude it was not altered simply by lack of signs of human intervention.

Spike Protein: A specialized protein on the surface of a virus to allow it to gain entry into a cell.

Target Protein: A protein on a cell’s surface the virus binds to in order to infect the cell.

Virology: The study of viruses.