The Perfect Enemy | ‘Covid virus escaped China lab under compromised safety norms’: US Senate report
December 1, 2022

‘Covid virus escaped China lab under compromised safety norms’: US Senate report

‘Covid virus escaped China lab under compromised safety norms’: US Senate report  Times of India

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NEW DELHI: The Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a lab leak incident in China, a report by the United States Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions has opined.
The interim report titled “An analysis of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic” released last month cites past instances to suggest that lab leaks are not unusual, and can result from human errors, mechanical failure, animal bites, animal escapes, inadequate training or insufficient funding.
The report by the Senate’s Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions indicts China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)- the suspected ground zero of the leak- for not adhering to the highest levels of safety that research with pathogens like coronaviruses demand.
Citing early patters of transmission, it questions the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated from a natural zoonotic transmission occurring at a seafood market in Wuhan.
However it also states that new information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment.
The report has based its assessment after analysing researches at the WIV, safety concerns and early epidemiology of the Covid pandemic.
Research work at WIV
The WIV is an epicenter of advanced coronavirus research that was designed to predict and prevent future pandemics by collecting, characterizing, and experimenting on “high-risk” coronavirus with the potential to spill over into humans, the report observes.
The institute has been conducting intensive research since 2004; scientists have actively sampled bats in regions where the SARS-related coronaviruses most similar to SARS-CoV-2 have been collected and identified.
The reports thus tries to establish that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was likely collected and brought to WIV for experimental purposes before it got accidentally leaked.
Contravention of safety norms
The WIV conducted most of its virus experiments in BSL2 (Bio-safety level-2) and BSL3 laboratories, while the recommended level is BSL4, the the US Senate report notes.
Scientists and officials at WIV had been raising concerns about the safety standards at the institute’s various laboratories, it says.
A severe crunch of funds, coupled with limited access to foreign equipment and technology forced researchers to construct equipment to address shortfalls, often compromising on the bio-safety aspect, it notes.
Citing an internal lab document, the US Senate report says a biosafety incident had likely occurred at the WIV sometime before November 2019. This was followed by a hastily arranged session where “important oral and written instructions” were issued for future lab operations. Further details, however remain unclear.
Studying the lab’s procurement list between April, 2019 and November 2020, it says WIV experienced persistent biosafety problems relevant to the containment of an aerosolized respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2.
‘No evidence of animal-to-human spillover’
The report says there is no published genetic evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in animals prior to the start of the pandemic, thereby dismissing the Wuhan seafood market leak premise.
“Critical corroborating evidence of a natural zoonotic spillover is missing,” it says.
“Moreover, the genetic similarity between the environmental samples and human viral samples supports the likelihood that the virus found at the Huanan Seafood Market was shed by infected humans, rather than by infected animals,” it further says, while adding that “earliest variants of SARS-CoV-2 were well-adapted for human-to-human transmission.”
A research-related incident is consistent with the earliest calls for assistance being located in or near the WIV’s original campus in central Wuhan, the report observes.
However the report leaves open the doors to “a more precise, if not a definitive” understanding of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and how the Covid-19 pandemic began, as more information becomes available.
It also calls for greater transparency, engagement, and responsibility on parts of public health officials and scientists involved in addressing Covid-19 and working to prevent future pandemics.