LATE LAST MONTH, US Senator Rand Paul asked the Joe Biden administration to declassify documents that reportedly show that the US department of energy had, with “low confidence”, informed the White House and key members of the Congress that the Covid-19 virus probably originated in a Wuhan research lab in China.
In an interview with THE WEEK, Yuri Deigin, cofounder of the independent group DRASTIC investigating the origins of the pandemic, says a lab in Wuhan in early 2020 developed another virus, potentially a much more dangerous one. He also talks about the progress the group has made and why he is not optimistic about China revealing information. A full-time drug developer in Canada, Deigin is currently working on therapies to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s and on its eventual reversal. Excerpts:
Q/ It has been more than three years since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan. Yet, there has been no headway; the investigations into its origins have been halted.
A/ People who hold the information are happy with the status quo and China is not going to release any new information that could help us investigate the lab [in Wuhan]. They are insistent that the lab had nothing to do with it, but at the same time they are non-transparent about sharing any information about the lab.
In the US, things have shifted slowly. The Republicans got control [of the House of Representatives] and are starting to look into the American side of things like [the NGO] EcoHealth and all the NIH-funded research that was being done in Wuhan. The problem is that, in the US, it is still not mandatory to answer the questions the likes of Senator Paul are raising, and to share the data the Republican investigators are requesting.
Q/ DRASTIC has been lying low for a while.
A/ As hobbyists investigating the origins [of Covid-19], we are doing genomic analyses of datasets from Wuhan, from 2019 and 2020, to see if we can notice any needles in the haystack. We are a group of five to six―bioinformaticians, biophysicists and medical professionals―committed to examining online databases and various sources of evidence for clues into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Q/ You claim to have uncovered troubling evidence of an unreported, lab-derived coronavirus in Wuhan.
A/ Yes. We looked at data from a 2019 study sequencing rice in Wuhan and found a lab-made coronavirus in the background instead. (Coronaviruses do no infect rice, so the virus would have come from somewhere else.) We found a previously unpublished HKU4 (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-like) virus in the dataset that seemed like it was part of the gain-of-function research (genetic modification). It was... potentially an infectious clone. Basically, it shows that there was active work on this coronavirus in Wuhan, which is unpublished. Not only did we find the virus, but we also found a potential chimera―which means the virus had the MERS spike gene spliced in, instead of the original spike protein. (A chimera is a DNA molecule with sequences derived from two or more organisms.) So this is dangerous gain-of-function work, and MERS is a lethal virus with a mortality rate of more than 30 per cent.
Q/ Can you give more details?
A/ We know that WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology), together with EcoHealth, has been working on gain-of-function into MERS and they were creating chimeras with funding from the NIH (National Institutes of Health, US). This is all documented. [Usually] they created chimeras by taking the MERS full virus and replacing its spikes with those from the HKU4 virus. But the HKU4 spike is not as good at binding with human receptors as the MERS virus is. What we found is the opposite―they took the backbone (main chain of a polymer) of the HKU4 and replaced the spike with the MERS spike, which is much better at binding with human receptors. So, it could be potentially dangerous if this virus escapes.
There was this argument that, if SARS-CoV-2 was to be engineered, they would have used one of the known reverse genetic systems (used to modify genes). Even at the time it was a weak argument, but now we know that there were unpublished coronavirus reverse genetic systems in use in Wuhan. So, it is completely within the realm of possibility that there was one built around the progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.
Our [recent] preprint conclusively shows that there were reverse genetic systems in use in Wuhan that have still not been published. So, who knows how many more unpublished backbones they had in use at the time. The WIV also boasted that they had thousands of viral samples in their private database, which means they could have had many different backbones on which they were working at a time.
Q/ So, what of the zoonotic theory that the virus came from animals?
A/ The [wet] market [in Wuhan], we believe, is not the source of the spillover, but a super-spreading place. The virus did not originate there. We still do not have any intermediate host we can point to. We just want to know the truth about Covid origins. Maybe additional information will come to light, new evidence that will further increase the probability that there was a leak. Also, there is a high possibility that if they do not find any evidence of a zoonotic spread in and around Wuhan, eventually the consensus will gravitate towards a possible lab leak.
Q/ Is the WIV coronavirus lab shut?
A/ It is fully operational and has just published a paper on a MERS-like virus found in pangolins. It is actually an interesting coincidence; it is a different virus than the one we found, but they published it a few days before our preprint. It is just as active as it had been pre-pandemic.
Q/ Is it true that the World Health Organization has quietly shelved the second phase of its investigation into the origins of the pandemic citing challenges in conducting crucial studies in China?
A/ This investigation is not going to be successful without China’s full cooperation; it will be another farce like in January 2021. China must soften its stand and fully allow the possibility that an accident has occurred. But I am not too optimistic that it will happen. I am more optimistic about the investigations in the west.