What we know and don’t know about the origins of Covid-19 IV News

What we know and don’t know about the origins of Covid-19 IV News

Updated: 24 days, 3 hours, 9 minutes, 36 seconds ago

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The conclusion of the Ministry of Energy, with “little faith”, that an An accidental leak in a laboratory in China likely caused the coronavirus has renewed questions about what caused the worst public health crisis in a century — and whether the virus at its heart was in any way connected to scientific research.

Scientists and intelligence agencies have tried hard to answer that question, but conclusive evidence is hard to come by. The nation’s intelligence agencies are divided, and none of them changed their conclusions after seeing the Energy Department’s findings, officials said.

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Scientists who have studied the genetics of the virus​​​​​​​​​​​​ and the patterns of its spread, say the most likely cause is that the virus jumped from living mammals to humans – a scientific phenomenon known as “veterinarian spillover” – at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Wuhan, China, the city where the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in late 2019.

But other researchers say there is evidence, albeit circumstantial, that the virus came from a laboratory, possibly the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had extensive expertise in coronavirus research. Lab accidents happen; in 2014, after incidents involving bird flu and anthrax, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened its biosecurity procedures.

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The debate is political. The lab leak theory gained currency among Republicans in the spring of 2020 after former President Donald Trump, who used inflammatory terminology to blame China for the pandemic, latched onto the idea. Many Democrats have not been convinced by the leak hypothesis; some say they believe in natural cause explanations, and others say there may never be enough intelligence to draw a conclusion.

The Energy Department’s findings have emboldened House Republicans, who are investigating the origins of the pandemic. But regardless of the politics, experts say understanding what caused a public health crisis that has killed nearly 7 million people could help scientists understand how to prevent the next one.

Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about the origins of the coronavirus.

Why is it hard to know for sure how the epidemic started?

Tracing the origin of viruses is often difficult, but China has exacerbated that problem by making it very difficult to gather evidence.

By the time Chinese researchers arrived to collect samples from the Huanan market, the police had closed and disinfected the market because a number of people associated with it had fallen ill with what would later be recognized as COVID. There were no live market animals left.

Some researchers also believe that China has provided an incomplete picture of the early COVID cases. And they worry that a directive to hospitals early in the outbreak to report illnesses specifically linked to the market may have led doctors to overlook other cases without such links, creating a biased picture of the spread.

What have scientists done to investigate?

Experts have tried to work around the holes in the data.

Researchers have looked at cases of patients who were admitted to hospitals before doctors were called to look for links to the market. They have also mapped the location of early COVID cases in Wuhan — including both people who were initially linked to the market and those who were not — and found what they say are signs that the virus had begun to spread in the market.

Some of these same researchers have studied a map of where researchers found the virus in the Huanan market, including walls, floors and other surfaces, and found that these samples clustered in areas of the market where live animals were sold.

And separate genetic analyzes from the very early stages of the pandemic, some researchers have said, suggest the virus was transmitted to people working or shopping at the market on two separate occasions.

Other researchers have disputed that studies such as these can indicate a market origin with high confidence. For example, they have said that the evidence of two separate outbreaks in the market could also be evidence that the virus has evolved as it spreads from person to person.

Some have also argued that despite all the attention given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, not enough has been paid to another research site in the city, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This center is much closer to Huanan market.

Why do some people suspect laboratory leaks?

In October, Republicans on the Senate Health Committee released an analysis of the origins of the pandemic that claimed it was “most likely the result of a research-related incident,” but acknowledged that the conclusion was “not intended to be negative.”

The report highlighted what its authors described as holes in the natural origin theory, as well as “persistent biosecurity issues” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. However, the report relied largely on existing public evidence, rather than new or classified information, and did not provide evidence to show that the Wuhan Institute kept virus in its collections that could have become the virus that causes COVID-19, with or without scientific wandering.

The lab leak hypothesis is bolstered, the report says, by the fact that there is no published evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was circulating in animals before the pandemic. Samples of the virus collected on refrigerators, countertops and other surfaces at the Huanan market were genetically similar to human samples, suggesting the virus was shed by humans, not animals, it said.

But some experts said the inability to find infected animals proved nothing, because China shut down the market and killed all its animals before they could be tested.

In 2018, before the pandemic, the Wuhan Institute and its partners — including the EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-funded research group — sought Defense Department funding to collect and experiment with coronaviruses with new properties that would make them highly infectious to humans.

The group project was never funded. But the report downplayed that suggestion, noting that the virus that causes COVID-19 has similar symptoms to what the researchers were looking for. That has convinced some scientists that a lab leak was possible. A report by Senate Republicans suggested that the virus might have escaped — perhaps by infecting a scientist who then carried it outside the lab.

What does the US Secret Service say?

In May 2021, a few months after taking office, President Joe Biden ordered the nation’s intelligence agencies to conduct a 90-day investigation into the cause of the pandemic. The results of that review were released in August 2021 and confirmed what the agencies had previously said: Both the natural origin theory and the research leak theory were plausible.

In a statement at the time, Biden urged China to be more transparent about what led to the virus’s emergence there in late 2019.

The new conclusion of the Norwegian Energy Agency is based on information that is not available to the public, so it is difficult to understand what explained the change. But the department’s use of the phrase “low confidence” suggests its level of certainty is not high. However, the FBI has concluded with “moderate confidence” that the virus emerged accidentally from a laboratory.

Four other intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council have concluded, with little certainty, that the virus most likely arose through natural transmission. The CIA, the nation’s top intelligence agency, has not taken a stand and remains undecided.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.