The latest on the origin of SARS-CoV-2

Scientists looking into the natural origin of the virus claim they are making some progress. At the same time, more evidence has also popped up about the type of research that was taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Telegraph published a story Saturday saying there are new studies supporting the natural transfer theory. The first study found evidence that some wild animals later found to be susceptible to COVID were being sold at Wuhan wet markets but notice what was not included: [emphasis added]

The first study, published in Scientific Reports, paints a vivid picture of the flourishing illegal wildlife trade in Wuhan. Between May 2017 and November 2019, some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in the city, including the Huanan market linked to an early cluster of cases.

The research, which initially intended to study the spread of a tick-borne disease in Wuhan, found several animals now known to be susceptible to Covid – such as civets, racoon dogs, badgers and mink – were consistently caged in cramped, unhygienic conditions before being sold and butchered. But pangolins and bats were not identified in market stalls.

Another new study highlighted by the Guardian located four more bat viruses which are similar to SARS-CoV-2:

We describe a meta-transcriptomic study of 411 bat samples collected from a small geographical region in Yunnan province, China, between May 2019 and November 2020. We identified 24 full-length coronavirus genomes, including four novel SARS-CoV-2 related and three SARS-CoV related viruses. Rhinolophus pusillus virus RpYN06 was the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 in most of the genome, although it possessed a more divergent spike gene.

Yunnan province is also the area where a group of men asked to shovel guano in a mine shaft became sick with SARS-like illness that eventually led to the discovery of RaTG13, the virus previously considered the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2. So I’d say that is evidence that virus, one way or another, originated in this area. But as many people have pointed out, that’s a long way from Wuhan. Whether the virus traveled to Wuhan with an infected animal or with a sample collected by researchers is still an open question.

Meanwhile, there are also some developments suggesting the virus could have come to Wuhan in a live bat. As Jim Geraghty at National Review highlighted today, DRASTIC has uncovered a video produced in 2017 about the Wuhan Institute of Virology which undercuts claims made last year by Dr. Peter Daszak that no live (or even dead) bats were being kept at the WIV:

For much of 2020, Peter Daszak — president of EcoHealth Alliance, longtime partner of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and one of the most staunch and outspoken critics of the lab-leak theory — insisted that there were no live bats within the Institute. He tweeted in December that, “No BATS ‘were sent to Wuhan lab for genetic analyses of viruses collected in the field’ That’s not how this science works. We collect bat samples, send them to the lab. We RELEASE bats where we catch them!” At some point, Daszak deleted his tweets making that assertion, but if he ever publicly admitted he was wrong, he was awfully quiet about it.

The counterevidence for Daszak’s claim has been piling up for a while now, even before this video.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology reportedly filed patents for bat cagesMultiple accounts of WIV staff described bringing at least a handful of live bats back to the lab for further study. As one Chinese Academy of Science website described it, “Founded in 1956, Wuhan Institute of Virology is a comprehensive research institution specializing in basic virology research and related technological innovation. The institute currently has 3 sets of barrier facilities with a facility scale of 1,216 square meters. The facility has 126 cages for Japanese white rabbits, 340 cages for SD and Wistar rats, inbred strains, closed groups, mutant strains, and genetically engineered mice. There are 3,268 cages, 12 ferrets, 12 bats, and 2 species of cotton bollworm and beet armyworm, totaling 52 strains.”

One of the biggest problems the supporters of the natural transfer theory have is that the proponents of that theory keep being caught saying things that aren’t true. On that point, the NY Times published another piece today about Dr. Shi Zhengli. It points out she seems to have been less than fully forthcoming about the men in the mine shaft who came down with the SARS-like illness:

Dr. Shi’s research on a group of miners in Yunnan Province who suffered severe respiratory disease in 2012 has also drawn questions. The miners had worked in the same cave where Dr. Shi’s team later discovered the bat virus that is close to SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Shi said her lab did not detect bat SARS-like coronaviruses in the miners’ samples and that she would publish more details in a scientific journal soon; her critics say she has withheld information.

“This issue is too important not to come forward with everything you have and in a timely and transparent manner,” said Alina Chan, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard who also signed the Science letter.

Many scientists and officials say China should share employees’ medical records and the lab’s logs of its experiments and its viral sequence database to evaluate Dr. Shi’s claims.

So there you have it. There’s some additional evidence which is potentially pointing in different directions. Here’s the full Sky News report about the recently uncovered video about the Wuhan Institute of Virology.