Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (2024)

Alina Chan, writing in the New York Times, unveils an argument she says all but proves the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the pandemic

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National Post Staff

Published Jun 03, 2024Last updated Jun 04, 20244 minute read

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Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (1)

As the U.S. Congress continues its investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic, with Dr. Anthony Fauci testifying on Monday, a Canadian scientist has taken to the New York Times to outline her contention that the virus probably escaped from a laboratory.

Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (2)

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Alina Chan is a molecular biologist specializing in gene therapy and cell engineering at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she is a post-doctoral fellow. She’s also co-author with science writer Matt Ridley of the 2021 book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19.

Her guest essay in Sunday’s Times, titled “Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points,” takes readers through the so-called lab leak hypothesis. It has been a minority view among scientists, many of whom long believed that COVID spread into the human population from infected animals, much like the SARS outbreak of 2003 or the MERS coronavirus of 2012.

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Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (4)

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Ahead of today's hearing in Congress: my opinion piece with the @nytimes on why Covid-19 was likely caused by a lab accident.

My hope since 2020 has been for leaders, especially scientists, to lead the charge in investigating a plausible lab #OriginOfCovid - as opposed to…

— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) June 3, 2024

A coincidental starting point

Her first point is one that has raised eyebrows among many scientists and laypeople alike: “The SARS-like virus that caused the pandemic emerged in Wuhan, the city where the world’s foremost research lab for SARS-like viruses is located.”

It is possibly just a coincidence, but Chan sees it as one point among several that buttress her theory. She points out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been hunting for SARS-like viruses for more than 10 years, led by Dr. Shi Zhengli, whose team made several trips to Yunnan province, more than 1,500 kilometres away, to collect bats.

When the pandemic began, she adds, Dr. Shi publicly wondered if the outbreak might have come from her lab.

A leaked document about a similar virus

Chan’s second point: In the year before the outbreak began, the Wuhan Institute, working with U.S. partners, had proposed creating viruses with the same defining features as SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 pandemic virus.

While her reasoning is quite technical, part of it comes down to a leaked 2018 grant proposal for a research project called Defuse, which aimed to create a SARS-like virus with a unique feature called a furin cleavage site that would enhance its infectiousness in humans. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has that feature, she says, and genetic data suggest it gained that feature just before the pandemic began.

Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (5)

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“Ultimately, a never-before-seen SARS-like virus with a newly introduced furin cleavage site, matching the description in the Wuhan institute’s Defuse proposal,caused an outbreak in Wuhan less than two years after the proposalwas drafted,” she writes.

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Sub-standard laboratory safety protocols

Chan’s third point is that the lab in Wuhan was not capable of containing an airborne virus as infectious as the one that started the pandemic.

Labs working with live viruses can operate at one of four biosafety levels, where BSL 1 is the lowest level of protection, and BSL 4 the most stringent. Chan notes that, two years into the pandemic, a scientist working at a BSL-3 laboratory in Taiwan was infected with the COVID virus.

However, she adds that an early draft of the Defuse proposal suggested the Wuhan lab would operate at BSL-2 for cost savings. She then quotes U.S. coronavirologist Ralph Baric’s note to another scientist who had told him the work at Wuhan would be done under BSL-2 standards, and that that would be sufficient: “Yes China has the right to set their own policy. You believe this was appropriate containment if you want but don’t expect me to believe it. Moreover, don’t insult my intelligence by trying to feed me this load of BS.”

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Market transmission lacks evidence

Chan makes another point, contradicting what was once a wide consensus that COVID-19 came from an animal at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, and stating that the claim “is not supported by strong evidence.”

In part this is because Chinese investigators initially assumed the market was the source, so they weren’t looking for anything to dispute that theory. But Chan also points out that Chinese authorities blocked the reporting of early cases not linked to the market, and that they destroyed some early patient samples in the name of biosafety, making it difficult to reconstruct the earliest spread of the disease.

“Not a single infected animal has ever been confirmed at the market or in its supply chain,” she adds. “Without good evidence that the pandemic started at the Huanan Seafood Market, the fact that the virus emerged in Wuhan points squarely at its unique SARS-like virus laboratory.”

Key information still missing

Chan’s final point is that key evidence that would be expected if COVID had emerged from wildlife trade is still missing, despite the intense search focused on animal trade and people linked to the market. “Investigators have either failed to collect or report key evidence that would be expected if COVID-19 emerged from the wildlife trade,” she notes.

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“Whether the pandemic started on a lab bench or in a market stall,” Chan writes in her conclusion, “it is undeniable that U.S. federal funding helped to build an unprecedented collection of SARS-like viruses at the Wuhan institute, as well as contributing to research that enhanced them. Advocates and funders of the institute’s research, including Dr. Fauci, should cooperate with the investigation to help identify and close the loopholes that allowed such dangerous work to occur. The world must not continue to bear the intolerable risks of research with the potential to cause pandemics.”

Chan’s suggestion is that a thorough and credible investigation would deter future acts of negligence and help restore public trust in science and government. “It would also show the world that U.S. leaders and scientists are not afraid of what the truth behind the pandemic may be.”

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Canadian scientist explains how COVID likely escaped from a Chinese lab in 'five key points' (2024)

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