A Canadian molecular biologist, on Wednesday, told cross-party members of Parliament (MPs) on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan region of China is now the more likely origin of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Dr Alina Chan, specialising in gene therapy and cell engineering and co-author of 'Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19', told the Parliament panel's evidence session on scientific research that the pandemic was being caused by the unique feature of the coronavirus called furin cleavage site, which has been linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Asked by the panel about the probability of a lab leak as the origin of the pandemic, Chan said a lab origin is more likely than natural origin at this point.
We all agree that there was a critical event at the Huanan Seafood Market, that was a superspreader event caused by humans. There is no evidence pointing to a natural animal origin of the virus at that market, she noted.
On the question of her level of confidence that the world would eventually be able to establish the true origins of COVID-19, Chan said it was simply a matter of time.
“Right now it is not safe for people who know about the origin of this pandemic to come forward. It might be five years from now, it might be 50 years from now, but we live in an era where there's so much data being collected and stored...we just need a credible, systematic investigation,” she said.
On whether the virus was modified in the lab before a leak, Chan said, “We have heard from many top virologists that a genetically engineered origin of this virus is reasonable...and this includes virologists who themselves have made modifications to the first SARS virus.”
“We know now that this virus has a very unique feature, called the furin cleavage site that makes it the pandemic pathogen it is. So, without this feature, there is no way this would be causing this pandemic.”
"Only recently in September did a proposal get leaked showing that scientists from the EcoHealth Alliance were in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology developing this pipeline for inserting novel furin cleavage sites, these genetic modifications, into SARS-like viruses in the lab.”
Chan stressed that the burden was on the scientists in question to show that their work did not result in the creation of SARS-COV2, the virus behind COVID-19, and that an investigation of documents being made available by US-based EcoHealth Alliance could hold the key.
Her co-author, Lord Matt Ridley, was also asked similar questions about the lab leak theory and he concurred with Chan's assertion that it was more likely than not the cause behind the pandemic.
We have to face the fact that after two months we knew the origins of SARS through markets, and after a couple of months we knew the origin of MERS through camels. In this case, after two years we still haven't found a single infected animal that could be the progenitor of this pandemic; that's extremely surprising, he said.
Ridley, along with Chan, agreed that any leak was most likely an accident as he traced the journey of scientists a few years ago to bring SARS-like viruses back to Wuhan for experiments.
It does have to be taken seriously. It is regrettable that in 2020 there was a pretty systematic attempt to shut down this topic, he noted.
Ridley said, “We need to find out so we can prevent the next pandemic. We need to know whether we should be tightening up work in laboratories or whether we should be tightening up regulations relating to wildlife sales in markets. At the moment we are really not doing either.”
“We also need to know to deter bad actors who are watching this episode and thinking that unleashing a pandemic is something they could get away with.”
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet' medical journal, also agreed that the lab leak theory behind COVID-19 is a hypothesis that needs to be taken seriously and needs to be investigated further, as referenced by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The evidence session forms part of the UK Parliament's Science and Technology Committee inquiry into "reproducibility and research integrity", which is expected to produce its findings in 2022.