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Beijing not open about Covid’s origins, scientists believe

The Wuhan Institute of Virology
Leak theories have centred around the Wuhan Institute of Virology - THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Almost two thirds of UK scientists think China was not open and transparent about the origins of Covid, and more than a quarter think the pandemic leaked from a Chinese lab.

However, the majority (67 per cent) believe the virus was of natural origin and not deliberately engineered.

The results of the survey, conducted by the Telegraph and Censuswide, reveal a split in the scientific world over how the coronavirus pandemic emerged.

Very few scientists believe the virus is not natural (16 per cent) and most experts seemingly subscribe to one of two theories: either that the virus spread directly from animals into people, likely through the Huanan seafood market, or an animal virus being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was either deliberately or accidentally leaked.

An anonymous survey of almost 200 lecturers in all disciplines across UK universities revealed a close split between the “lab leak” and “not lab leak” schools of thought among the 125 people who gave an answer, with 41 per cent of them in favour of the former.

More than a third replied with either “no views” or “prefer not to say”.

The origin of the coronavirus pandemic has been a divisive topic ever since the first cases emerged in Wuhan at the end of 2019. Vicious arguments erupted between warring factions of scientists, often closing off constructive debate.

Conversation about the possibility of a lab leak was largely shut down in the midst of lockdown after a group of scientists wrote in the Lancet that they “strongly condemned conspiracy theories”.

Ongoing investigations, including from a US Congressional Inquiry, have found cause for concern around the biosecurity of the WIV, which was known to be storing and working on coronaviruses before the pandemic.

Prof James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, said although the survey sample size was small it “usefully” distinguished between the two lab-leak scenarios.

“There has been a lot of confusion or conflation between the lab-leak hypothesis and whether this was an artificially constructed virus. This survey pulls these separate questions apart,” he said.

Lab theory ‘plausible’

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, added: “It always seemed entirely plausible to me that Covid escaped from a laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that it was deliberate or the result of nefarious activity.

“Labs like the one in Wuhan routinely collect and store samples of the pathogens they are studying, so Covid could have been collected from a wild animal, taken to the lab for study, but accidentally released because of a lapse in biosecurity.”

However, Professor Ravindra Gupta, an expert in clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the prevailing belief is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged naturally.

“The lay of the land among scientists is people saying it is most likely of natural origin through the market; there were a lot of animals there and there was evidence of the SARS virus, so most likely that is what happened.

“But we cannot ignore that laboratory work was going on at unsafe containment levels in Wuhan. It is possible it leaked from a Chinese lab and it should be taken seriously.”

Scientists also slammed China for its role in the pandemic, with two thirds agreeing that “China has not been open and transparent about the origins of Covid-19”.

Prof Wood said the slow release of information from China has likely increased uncertainty over Covid’s origins.

“Coupled with the fact that retrospective investigations of outbreaks can often fail to identify specific epidemic sources, even when there is complete official openness, it is not clear that further investigations now will ever be able to identify a source,” he added.

Prof Clarke agreed, saying: “We’ve probably missed the opportunity to investigate whether that’s what actually happened.”

‘China behaved badly throughout’

Prof Lawrence Gostin, distinguished university professor at Georgetown University in the US, and director of the O’Neill Institute, a WHO-collaborating centre on global health law, said China had “behaved badly throughout the pandemic”.

“It has not been a good global citizen and may be partially responsible for the failure of an early response to help contain the virus,” Prof Gostin said.

“China was late in reporting the outbreak to WHO, conveyed misleading information to the WHO suggesting there was limited human-to-human transmission, and blocked any attempt at an independent scientific investigation of Covid origins.

“Because of China, the world may never know the full truth. After all the world has suffered from Covid-19, China’s actions have been reprehensible.”

Controversial experiments

Scientists were also quizzed on the usefulness and risks of gain-of-function lab experiments, which take a virus and give it enhanced abilities, sometimes relating to mortality and transmissibility.

One third of those questioned (34 per cent) thought these experiments were needed to prevent future pandemics, but the same proportion said they “risk sparking future pandemics”.

“They are only justifiable if they have important and immediate public health benefits,” Prof Gupta said, adding they need to be “very tightly regulated”.

“I think the survey shows that people believe in the ability of science to answer questions, but some of those experiments carry a risk.”

Prof Gupta, who is also co-chairman of the Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks, recently presented a report to the UN, which stated Covid could have been caused by a research-related incident.

“This survey is an independent validation of what we have just put out,” he told The Telegraph.

“Scientists are saying, in an anonymous fashion, that they agree with what the report’s findings are. There are risks associated with doing this work, but also this sort of work is essential to be able to save lives in the future.”

However, Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at America’s Rutgers University, disagrees, and thinks gain-of-function research “has zero civilian applications”.

He said: “It provides no information useful for preventing pandemics and no information useful for responding to pandemics. It is not required for, and does not contribute to, the development of any vaccine or therapeutic agent.”

Virologists at the WIV have previously dismissed claims of a lab leak.