In the last one and a half years as the word ‘Coronavirus’ became common in vocabularies across the world as it swept through countries infecting millions and killing almost 40 lakh people, the origins of the virus still remain undetermined. The virus was first detected from a wet-food market in Wuhan, China, which soon turned into the epicentre of the disease. It slowly spread to other Asian countries, and then to the West. A year on, 112 million confirmed cases and almost 2.49 million deaths, with the numbers only slated to increase. As the world battles the pandemic and slowly administers a vaccine in hopes of slowly beating the disease which has been leading to multiple second, third and even fourth waves in places that had flattened the curve, the World Health Organization looked into trying to find the origin.
In early February, a team of investigators working on behalf of the World Health Organization visited a major virus research laboratory in China’s central city of Wuhan, seeking clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The institute has been at the centre of a number of conspiracy theories that claim a laboratory leak caused the city’s first coronavirus outbreak at the end of 2019.
However, the WHO investigators have backed the ruling Communist Party’s claims that “cold-chain products" such as Australian beef, may have caused the initial outbreak. Peter Embarek, the leader of the WHO team, also said that studies should be carried out to find if the virus was imported into the country, adding it was “extremely unlikely" that the virus leaked from a lab. They even went on to declare that no further study should be undertaken into the theory.
Now, Australian scientist, Danielle Anderson who was working in what has become the world’s most notorious laboratory just weeks before the first known cases of Covid-19 emerged in central China wonders what she missed. Anderson is the only foreign scientist to have undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in mainland China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her tenure ended in November 2019, giving Anderson an insider’s perspective on the laboratory.
Anderson didn’t find the lab suspicious: “It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson told Bloomberg in her first statement to the media.
Anderson was present in Wuhan when the virus began to spread. Since she visited the laboratory daily, she was in close proximity to many others working at the Research Centre. She was also part of a group that gathered each morning at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to catch a bus that shuttled them to the institute about 20 miles away. Anderson also mentioned she was regularly in contact with her colleagues: “We went to dinners together, lunches, we saw each other outside of the lab," she tells Bloomberg.
If any of the scientists had the virus then, the chances of Anderson catching it were high - but Anderson has never tested positive for Covid-19. “If people were sick, I assume that I would have been sick—and I wasn’t," she said. “I was tested for coronavirus in Singapore before I was vaccinated, and had never had it."
She also mentioned the lack of interest from the scientists at the laboratory - “There was no chatter." Anderson said. “Scientists are gossipy and excited. There was nothing strange from my point of view going on at that point that would make you think something is going on here."
Anderson is also convinced no virus was made intentionally to infect people and deliberately released—one of the more disturbing theories to have emerged about the pandemic’s origins. She believes strongly in the natural source theory, but if presented with enough evidence on the lab leak, could be swayed otherwise, she added.
In October, China had claimed that SARS-CoV2 broke out in the various parts of the world in 2019 but it was the only one to have reported and acted first. The country also rubbished the widely-held view that the deadly contagion originated in Wuhan before turning out to be a pandemic.
Not all scientists are convinced, though. In May, 18 scientists writing in the journal Science called for an investigation into Covid-19’s origins, stating in the paper that, “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks."
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