Is the coronavirus an "animal passage" experiment gone wrong?

This Newsweek story is almost pure speculation but interesting anyway as a look at the sort of insanely risky experiments some virologists are doing around the world to try to anticipate how existing viruses might mutate naturally to produce a killer pandemic.

The technique involved is called “gain of function.” Scientists take a known virus and inject it into, say, a ferret. Then they wait for the ferret to get sick, harvest the virus from the ferret’s body — which may now have mutated — and inject it into a second ferret. Then they do that again with a third ferret, and a fourth, and so on, with the virus continually mutating, until finally it mutates into a form that can infect another ferret naturally, through proximity instead of injection. (Viruses that are transmissible among ferrets tend to be transmissible among humans, Newsweek notes.) They’re not trying to engineer a deadly pathogen via this “animal passage” process so much as they’re trying to predict what a deadly pathogen might look like if it emerged naturally among animals in the wild. The U.S. program to fund research like this is called, not coincidentally, “PREDICT.” In theory this will lead to antiviral drugs derived from the lab-mutated viruses so that we have a weapon that’s ready if/when a deadly novel virus emerges in nature, but so far it seems like there haven’t been any practical results from it.

The risk from this technique is obvious. By hurrying along the mutation process, scientists are breeding pathogens right there in the lab that may prove lethal *and* infectious. If there’s a lab accident and someone gets infected before knocking off work for the day…

You see where I’m going with this.

Newsweek reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s version of the CIA, concluded on March 27 that it couldn’t rule out a lab accident as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because, based on the evidence, fully a third of the first 41 people known to be infected by the coronavirus had no direct exposure to the wet market in Wuhan, the place where transmission supposedly began. Meanwhile, as chance would have it, the nearby virology lab in Wuhan just so happens to perform “gain of function” research on coronaviruses, probably involving animal passage. Some scientists have ardently opposed that type of research for years because of the risk that a virus rendered contagious through extensive gain of function might escape the lab and wreak havoc on the world.

That’s about the extent of the hard evidence in the Newsweek piece. One problem with confirming the “animal passage” theory of COVID-19’s origins is that viruses produced that way look like they emerged in nature — because, well, they did. It was just nature inside a laboratory. A true genetically engineered virus would have telltale signs of artificial manipulation that would make it easier for a trained eye to spot. So animal passage can’t be ruled in. But it can’t be ruled out either:

Rutger’s Ebright, a longtime opponent of gain of function research, says that the [Scripps Research] analysis fails to rule out animal-passage as an origin of SARS-CoV-2. “The reasoning is unsound,” he wrote in an email to Newsweek. “Embarrassingly unsound. They favor the possibility ‘that the virus mutated in an animal host such as a pangolins’ yet, simultaneously, they disfavor the possibility that the virus mutated in ‘animal passage.’ Because the two possibilities are identical, apart from location, one can’t logically favor one and disfavor the other.”

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at UC Davis, says that the preponderance of evidence, while not definitive, suggests that the virus came from nature, not a lab. “There’s no hint there that there’s something unnatural, that is, genetically engineered,” he says. But “there is some wiggle room” in the findings that admits the possibility that the virus was concocted in a lab via animal passage. “Passaging is hard to test for. Escape from a lab is hard to test for,” he says. “If [Wuhan researchers] collected something from the field and they were doing some experiments in the lab with it, and some person got infected and then it spread from there, that would be really hard to distinguish from it having spread in the field directly.”

Wuhan is in possession of a virus, RATG13, that is thought to be the most similar to SARS-CoV-2 of any known virus—the two share 96 percent of their genetic material. That four-percent gap would still be a formidable gap for animal-passage research, says Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina who collaborated with Shi Zheng-Li on the 2015 gain-of-function research. “You keep running into problems that just don’t make it likely,” he says. Wuhan would probably have had to start with a virus closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RATG13, which is within the realm of possibilities.

Is it more or less likely than the “animal passage” theory that researchers simply harvested COVID-19 in its final form when they were out on one of their missions collecting bat droppings for study? If I’m understanding “gain of function” correctly then the answer should be “less,” because a virus harvested directly from a bat isn’t necessarily (or even probably?) transmissible to humans. Animal passage is what can make it transmissible. So maybe they harvested something very similar to SARS-CoV-2 that wasn’t infectious, and then made it infectious, and then — whoops.

But as I say, it’s speculation. Interesting speculation, given other bits and pieces of data about the Wuhan lab:

The Ignatius and Owen pieces were both amplified by commentary from Richard Ebright, a biosecurity expert at Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology. Ebright said there was evidence that the Wuhan lab was operating at biosafety level 2 security, as opposed to the recommended biosafety level 4, and that the accidental infection of a laboratory worker could not be ruled out. He also told Ignatius about a video taken in December from the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, allegedly showing staff “collecting bat coronaviruses with inadequate [personal protective equipment] and unsafe operational practices.”

The State Department warned about safety issues at the Wuhan lab in 2018. Jim Geraghty also wrote a provocative piece earlier this month pointing to circumstantial evidence of a cover-up involving lab personnel based on rumors circulating on China’s Internet. It’s impossible to say for sure why the Chinese government might attempt to suppress information about someone — suppressing information is the party’s raison d’etre — but it doesn’t hurt the theory that something happened at the lab that the CCP would rather the rest of the world not know about.

How will we ever know, though? If there’s no way to say with confidence through scientific analysis of the virus’s genome that it emerged via lab-induced “animal passage” then our only hope is Beijing coming clean voluntarily. Thirty years later, they still haven’t come clean about Tiananmen Square. They’re not going to come clean about a global biological Chernobyl.

To boost your spirits after reading this post about bat sh*t and mass death, read this NYT story about Oxford researchers racing ahead towards a vaccine. By chance, Oxford had already conducted trials last year that showed that a human vaccine for coronaviruses would be harmless. Now they can skip to the part where they test their vaccine against COVID-19 on actual people. They’ve already tested it on six rhesus monkeys, all of whom were vaccinated and then injected with “heavy quantities of the virus.” A month later, all six were just fine.