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The possibility Covid is man-made is not a ‘divisive’ issue - the world needs to know

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were importing and tinkering with deadly bat coronaviruses
Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were importing and tinkering with deadly bat coronaviruses - ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The goal of any inquiry is to learn lessons so a similar calamity can be averted.

So it seems oddly short-sighted that the Covid Inquiry is refusing to examine the origins of the pandemic.

When Michael Gove pointed out that the Government was unprepared because the virus was so unusual - and possibly man-made - he was shut down by Sir Hugo Keith KC who said the issue was divisive and “not part of the terms of reference” of the inquiry.

It’s hard to imagine this happening in any other context.

Envisage a scenario where the Hillsborough Inquiry had felt it was “divisive” to examine policing decisions that led to 96 people being crushed to death, or if the Grenfell Tower inquiry had felt cladding was beyond its remit.

Finding out the origins of Covid-19 is crucial. If the virus really was cooked up in a Chinese lab, then we need to know so the world can consider introducing a moratorium on such risky research.

Likewise, should we be allowing so-called “virus hunters” to gather rare diseases from remote locations and bring them back to cities when the danger from accidental escape could be catastrophic?

Failing to act sends a message to rogue actors that reckless lab work will be treated with impunity - a dangerous precedent to set as synthetic biology grows even more sophisticated.

It also stops us from being able to prepare for a future engineered virus that we may know nothing about.

Hamish de Bretton Gordon, an expert on chemical and biological counter-terrorism, told The Telegraph: “The chance of a man-made virus in future is so high, and so likely, that we can’t wait until the end of the inquiry to take action.

“Because of the ease and advances in synthetic biology, the next man-made pathogen could be highly virulent and very transmissible.

“Something like Lassa fever or Ebola crossed with Covid could create millions and millions of deaths.”

Whether the virus was man-made or not, evidence for a lab leak is compelling.

A deadly coronavirus popped up just eight miles from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) where scientists were importing and tinkering with deadly bat coronaviruses.

The virus had come out of nowhere, seemingly pre-adapted to infect humans, and despite nearly four years of searching, no intermediary animal host has ever been found.

When scientists hunted for the source of the original Sars, a small team found it within six months.

It has led some to suggest that the host animal is not in the wild at all, but rather a humanised mouse used in experiments to test whether it could be infected with a chimeric virus.

Wuhan scientists were certainly working on such experiments.

Worrying biosecurity levels

In 2010, WIV embarked on “gain of function” work to increase the infectiousness of Sars coronavirus in humans.

Within five years, Wuhan scientists had created a highly infectious chimeric virus that targeted the human upper respiratory tract and later applied for funding to begin infection experiments in humanised mice.

While such lab experiments might arguably be justified on the grounds of preventing a future pandemic, WIV was notoriously lax with its biosecurity.

In the months before the pandemic, the institute had registered patents for repairs to ventilation symptoms and broken seals. Scientists were filmed holding infected bats without proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

In November 2019, three researchers at WIV sought treatment at a hospital after falling ill with symptoms consistent with Covid-19.

After the first cases emerged, scientists closer to home were also worried that the virus had been engineered or evolved in a lab, but chose to keep it to themselves for fears of upsetting China.

Their true feelings only came to light following a series of freedom of information requests and subpoenas.

In February 2020, an email from Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that “a likely explanation” was that Covid-19 had rapidly evolved from a Sars-like virus inside human tissue in a low-security laboratory.

Sir Jeremy warned that research in Wuhan was like the “Wild West”, with experiments carried out at worrying biosecurity levels.

Kristian Andersen, a Danish evolutionary biologist, set up a “super secret” Slack group entitled “Project Wuhan Engineering” to discuss the possibility with world-renowned experts.

He wrote: “The lab escape version of this is so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario.”

In the exchange, Prof Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh University, admitted that it “smells really fishy” but warned of the “s--- show” that would ensue if China was “accused of even accidental release”.

Dr Robert Garry, from Tulane University, pointed out that similar genetic effects seen in Covid-19 had been seen when bird flu was allowed to evolve in laboratory chickens.

But in public, scientists roundly dismissed a lab leak or viral engineering, claiming a zoonotic origin was far more likely, despite their private misgivings.

Even Matt Hancock was ordered by the Cabinet Office to tone down his autobiography which raised concerns that Covid-19 leaked from the Wuhan lab.

Where the British establishment has attempted to sweep the issue under the carpet, the US has at least made some progress in searching for the truth.

In April, an 18-month US Senate Committee inquiry into the origins of Covid concluded that: “The preponderance of circumstantial evidence supports an unintentional research-related incident.”

In September, WIV was stripped of United States government funding for 10 years for conducting dangerous experiments that increased the potency of coronaviruses before the pandemic.

Documents showed that between 2018 and 2019, scientists had inserted new spike proteins into four bat coronaviruses, with one chimeric virus killing 75 per cent of humanised mice within two weeks.

The US Department of Human Health and Services (HHS) said that the experiments had increased viral activity more than tenfold, in clear violation of government grant guidelines.

WIV refused to engage with HHS throughout the inquiry, and there are fears that such experiments are still ongoing.

The HHS report concluded: “There is a risk that WIV not only previously violated, but is currently violating, and will continue to violate, protocols of the National Institutes of Health on biosafety.”

Nearly seven million people have now died of Covid worldwide and dangerous experiments may be still happening, yet little is being done to address the issue.

The Chinese authorities have refused to allow a proper investigation and have blocked attempts to access laboratories, research notebooks or sample databases.

The World Health Organisation claims an investigation is still ongoing, but it is making little progress.

At best, the viral work in Wuhan did nothing to help the world prepare for a devastating viral outbreak.

At worst, it started one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen. It’s time to find out which is true.

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