As Conspiracy Theories Float, Scientists Race Against Time to Solve Mystery of Coronavirus Origin

Nadia: A graffiti on coronavirus is seen on a street during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Nadia district, Saturday, April 4, 2020. (PTI Photo)(PTI04-04-2020_000174B)

Nadia: A graffiti on coronavirus is seen on a street during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Nadia district, Saturday, April 4, 2020. (PTI Photo)(PTI04-04-2020_000174B)

Some theories suggest that it was a “bioweapon” created by the Chinese, while others claim the US Army transported the virus to Wuhan.

Padmaja Venkataraman
  • Last Updated: April 7, 2020, 8:28 PM IST
  • Edited by: Shayne Dias
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The novel coronavirus infection has spread rapidly across the world, killing 75,945 people and infecting over 1.3 million over 180 countries. The scarcity of knowledge about the origins of the new coronavirus, that is wreaking havoc across the world has provided a breeding ground for countless theories to fester — from the freakish to the dubious to the plausible, a report in CNN said.

Some theories suggest that it was a “bioweapon” created by the Chinese, while others claim the US Army transported the virus to Wuhan. “It leaked — like a genie out of a bottle — from a lab in an accident. It took root at a wildlife market in Wuhan,” the report added.

Scientists across the world have dismissed nationalist conspiracy theories. However, they are divided on what was once believed to be the most likely source: the wet market in China’s Wuhan, where wild animals are confined in cages and sold as pets or food, the CNN report further stated.

The truth about the entirety of the pandemic’s origins remains evasive. So far, only one aspect is known with certainty — that it came from bats.

Experts at Loggerheads over Wet-market Theory

It's "the most simple, obvious and likely explanation," Dr Simon Anthony, a professor at the public health grad school of Columbia University told CNN. Anthony is also a senior member of PREDICT, a federally-funded global project studying viruses in animal hosts with pandemic potential. Over the decade, PREDICT has discovered 180 coronaviruses, the report said.

Experts stand divided over the once widely-believed theory that the virus stemmed from a wet market in Wuhan.

Supporters argue that the bloody surroundings of these huddled markets where wild animals are slaughtered make them the most likely cause. The critics, however, cite a peer-reviewed study suggesting that those of the first known cases had no direct contact to the wet market, CNN report said.

Another “potentially explosive” theory — first put forth by two Chinese researchers in February and repeated by Fox News host Tucker Carlson on March 31 — maintains that the origin traces back to an accident in one of two labs situated near the Wuhan market that work with bats, the report said.

Several experts have denied this theory. But a chemical biology professor and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University advocated that the lab-accident theory holds credence.

“The possibility that the virus entered humans through a laboratory accident cannot and should not be dismissed," Dr. Richard Ebright told CNN in an email.

‘Confident that Origin of Covid-19 is in Bats’

Whatever maybe the case, researchers concur that the coronavirus “jumped from an animal to a human, a phenomenon known as ‘zoonotic spillover,’” the report said. In February, Chinese researchers published a study in a leading science journal that deciphered that “2019-nCoV is 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus."

Subsequently, 27 public health scientists from across the world penned a letter in The Lancet criticising several conspiracy theories, which had gripped the scientific community.

One of the scientists is Peter Daszak, an eminent virus hunter who has been working in China for 10 years.

"We're very confident that the origin of Covid-19 is in bats," Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a health nonprofit that tracks zoonotic spillover, told CNN.

"We just don't know where exactly it originated — which bat species exactly. And we don't know how many others there are out there that could emerge in the future," he adds.

Did the Virus Transfer to Humans from an ‘Intermediate Animal’?

Another cause of contention has been if the virus that caused Covid-19 jumped directly from bat to human, or whether there existed an "intermediate" animal in between.

Daszak, according to the CNN report, believes a bat infected a farm animal that was brought to the market alive, and kept with people in one of the most ideal incubators for a viral infection to breed — the Chinese wet market.

"The first time you go into China as a Westerner, it is a bit of shock to go to a wildlife market and see this huge diversity of animals live in cages on top of each other with a pile of guts that have been pulled out of an animal and thrown on the floor," he told CNN.

He adds that as one walks near the stalls, one slips on the feces and blood. That, he says, serve as “perfect places” for the virus to advance.

However, an article published in Lancet cast aspersions on the theory. The study reveals that one-third of the 41 infected patients had not come in direct contact with the wet market. Among those, was the first known patient who purportedly began showing symptoms on December 1.

"No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases," the report states.

The market was closed on January 1, two days after the Wuhan authorities issued a public health warning about it, the report added.

US-China Tensions Hindering Progress

But one of the labs cited in the paper, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gave a statement on February 19 that rejected any claims that the virus originated from its lab, the CNN report said.

The Chinese government, too, says the origin of the virus remains unclear and that others should stop the attacks on its country.

"As a matter of fact, the source of Covid-19 is a scientific issue," Luo Zhaohui, a vice minister of foreign affairs, was quoted as saying by CNN.

Zhaohui, who issued this statement in March, added, "We need to listen to professional and scientific opinions. The WHO has stressed many times that linking viruses to specific races, skin colors or geographical areas should be avoided. This is also the international consensus."

Other researchers also conveyed their reservations about the lab-accident theory, CNN report said.

Meanwhile, increasing tensions between the US and China over the source of the virus — exacerbated by allegations from both sides — are hampering the work of the virus hunters, who are stranded by travel restrictions.

"If there was a so-called intermediate host, an animal that the bat virus got into and then allowed it to get into people, the virus might still be in that host," Daszak, the virus hunter working in China told CNN.

"And there are hundreds, thousands of these animals and farms and maybe the virus is still there. So even if we get rid of the outbreak, there's still a chance that that virus could then re-emerge and we need to find that out quickly," he added.

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