Lab-Leak Vs Bats: How Important Is it to Probe COVID Origin?

The idea that a virus could have been lab leak is “my favourite theory & it is scary,” Virologist Dr Jacob John.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Lab-Leak Vs Bats: The hypothesis that it did escape from a Chinese lab has gained traction recently.</p></div>

More than a year into the pandemic that has killed over 35 lakh people and infected over 16.8 crore, we still don’t know for sure where COVID came from. No one does.

Since it was first detected in China's Wuhan in late 2019, call to probe the origin of the virus is growing louder based of two prevailing competing theories - did the virus jump from bats to humans via an intermediate animal or was it accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan?

The hypothesis that it did escape from a Chinese lab has gained traction after a recent Wall Street Journal report that said three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care for “symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.”

US President Joe Biden's administration has sought a deeper investigation into the origins of the virus, after an international mission to China earlier this year proved inconclusive.

Animal source or from a lab accident - How important is it to investigate the origins of the pandemic? How vital is it in order to avert future pandemics?

'You Have to Assume Everything'

"Humans can influence the future. Therefore, it is extremely important to study the origins of the pandemic," leading Virologist Dr Jacob John said.

For Epidemiologist Dr JP Muliyil, calling for a better probe or worrying about the evidence is not as important as making assumptions. “One has to make assumptions in everything.”

If it is a natural spillover, there is nothing that can be done, because the scientific community knows mutations occur all the time and they are pushing for systems in place to counter future outbreaks.

“Assume it is a lab virus. Some mishap happened…now you work on the question. If that is possible and it has cost the whole world, how do we go about setting up systems to prevent it?”
Dr JP Muliyil, Epidemiologist 

But it also important to know which country we are setting up these facilities in, says Dr Muliyil, hinting that there is an undeniable political aspect to this argument. "If it’s not a transparent country, we should refuse to be party to that system."

Dr John says cultural differences in the mindset plays a role in our ability to investigate the outbreak. It is important to wear the western culture hat if one has to know what happened with this pandemic and avert any future outbreaks.

"In Indian culture, if something has happens, we forget about it. Somebody died, who cares about the diagnosis? But in the modern world, it matters. If a person died of an infectious disease that means other people are at risk. We need to know who are at risk and take precautions. That is a western culture concept, not Indian," Dr John said.


'Own Up to Mistakes, Rectify It’

Of all the theories, the lab leak hypothesis is the one that attracts Dr John the most - that it was a "botched up, secret, virology research, manipulating viruses and such a virus infected somebody in the lab and then more people were infected."

The idea that a virus could have been leaked from a lab is "my favourite theory and it is scary," says Dr John.

Two things are important here, he says: "If this had not leaked from the lab, the world would not have known anything about it. So if they had manipulated this virus and used it as a weapon…supposing they quietly took it to a country that China wanted to hit and set out the virus and came back, no body would know the Chinese origin. The epidemic would have started in that country."

It is thus very important to know the origin of this pandemic because if it had not occurred now, it would have occurred later, Dr John said. “And if this virus is lab-manipulated, are there more lab-manipulated viruses?”

Dr Muliyil, on the other hand, thinks the lab experiment was not done out of any bad intention, but to anticipate future problems and prevent it. However, it does look like a lab error, he said.

"When you do experiments like this, things can get out of hand. A lab person can get infected..."

But what is important is to focus on how to prevent a lab-origin infection.

“People make mistakes all over the world. You make sure that when somebody makes a mistake, they own up instead of hiding it. There should be frankness to say I made a mistake…so that we can rectify it, not hide it.”

The key evidence on whether the virus had a natural origin or whether it leaked from a lab, is in China. But China has repeatedly denied any accidental leak theory, hid the severity of its coronavirus outbreak, muzzled whistleblowers and without its cooperation it would be highly difficult to trace it, say experts.

What Does This Mean for India?

But what does all this digging mean for a country like India, which has been facing criticism over the handling of the pandemic, spent little money on healthcare and whose ability to respond to sudden large admissions has been woefully inadequate?

The pandemic has ravaged even the wealthiest of nations like the US which can afford to have a robust healthcare system. India, has bigger fundamental problems in the healthcare infrastructure which is reflected in the current pandemic, Dr Muliyil said. So, does it matter where COVID came from?

“We need systems by which we strengthen Virology, but more important is the basic amenities to admit a sick person. We lack it.”

What India has to understand is it cannot be going on with facilities that are inadequate for its population, Dr Muliyil said.

"If we are honest to ourselves we will carefully go through what happened and carefully try to find lasting solutions instead of blaming one another."

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