Written By Wan Sui-lun and Tsang Kwong-hoi
Translated by a Canadian CitizenNews Reader
The situation has been very harsh ever since the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus disease. The public has been questioning about the root cause of the virus, spawning much diversified debates over the internet. Indeed, we cannot deny the possibility that, eating wildlife animals may have caused the virus outbreak, but this could merely be one of many suspicious possibilities. We should pay more attention to another focus, that is, the biological scientists in China, especially the scientists in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From their publicly released reports and papers since 2008, we get to understand about the type of research that was carried out in these labs., especially in relation to the artificial transformation experiments and handling of the SARS virus. Such information may be helpful in our search for the source of the coronavirus.
In 2015, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France, raised a warning in the international scientific journal《Nature》about the scientists in China who engineered a new virus, which is similar to SARS, over the horseshoe bats. He indicated that the engineered virus can grow in mice and "mimic human disease". He also indicated that the engineered virus "grows remarkably well in human cells" and "if the virus escaped, no one can predict the trajectory". He raised a question as to whether the research work should be continued, whether the social risk that it bears is worth it. (the relevant report can be seen in the following screenshot, titled "Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research" ).
In fact, the kind of research that was being carried out in China before 2015 can be traced back to the three following papers published in international journals:
1. Difference in Receptor Usage between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus and SARS-Like Coronavirus of Bat Origin, American Society for Microbiology, Journal of Virology, February Edition, 2008.
2. Bat severe acute respiratory syndrome-like coronavirus ORF3b homologues display different interferon antagonist activities, Journal of General Virology, United Kingdom, 2012.
3. Identification of Immunogenic Determinants of the Spike Protein of SARS-like Coronavirus, Virologica Sinica, April 2013.
The authors of the above literature mostly came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and two of them are researchers who appeared more frequent in the news, Peng Zhou and Zheng-li Shi. The 2008 literature confirmed that a new SARS-Like Coronavirus was generated in the Institute through the artificial manipulation of the gene that encodes the spike protein. It was successfully transmitted to other bats as well as lab rats. In addition, the 2013 paper mentioned that, in the previous tests, it was discovered that bat sera infected with SARS-Like Coronavirus can recognize the spike protein of HIV-pseudovirus.
Admittedly, the researchers indicated in their reports that "this finding will be of potential use in future monitoring of SARS-Like CoV infection in bats and spillover animals and in development of more effective vaccine to cover broad protection against this new group of coronaviruses", but at the same time, they expressed that there can be potential risk that the research may bring to the society.
They have written that: "It is not unreasonable to conclude that bats are a natural mixing vessel for the creation of novel Coronaviruses and that it is only a matter of time before some of them cross species into terrestrial mammal and human populations". (see below)
Beside Simon Wain-Hobson from France, there were scientists from other countries who have participated in the collection of SARS-Like Coronavirus and processing work in the lab, such as Ralph Baric from the University of North Carolina, and others. They have all brought up similar warnings and suggested halting the related research. And in fact, the Wuhan Institute of Virology have collaborated with these American scientists in the early stages. (see below, first page of the article and caption "SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronavirus pose threat for human emergence")
Despite serious warnings from global scientists, research work in China has never stopped. Related papers have appeared in various journals, amongst them the paper published in PLOS, November 2017, "Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS related coronavirus provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus". The first page of the paper mentioned that, the research subject was sponsored by the National Natural Science Foundation in China.
Scientific Research not necessarily all happen in P4 virus lab
The National Biosafety Laboratory of Wuhan, in short, Wuhan P4 Lab or P4 Lab, is in the limelight currently. A collaboration of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wuhan city government, the P4 Lab became operational officially only in as late as January 2018; hence, there are reasons to believe that the aforementioned scientific research work might not be done in the P4 Lab.
People should pay more attention to how the country regulate and manage the governance and control measures of the work in high-risk R&D facilities, whether leakage may happen, as well as the ethical and moral constraints of the scientific research projects undertaken. On this regard, acquirable news is limited, but one can sense an inkling from an appeal released on February 9th by the alumni of the School of Life Science of the Shanghai Fudan University.
An appeal to "Seek the Source, Eliminate the Epidemic" made by the School of Life Science Alumni of the Fudan University
In the invocation letter, the School of Life Science alumni of the Fudan University stated that, not only do they dismiss all sorts of "conspiracy theories" circulating on the internet, they also refuse to believe that scientists intentionally introduce the virus to the community. Yet, based on their understanding of this field, they won't dispute that, apart from the vast hard-working and dedicated researchers, the existence of those who after quick money and fame. Could human-modified virus escape out of the Lab by accident? Who dares to claim its absolute impossibility? In the midst of such dire outbreak, the alumni appealed to leaders of all levels in China, including those in the health authorities of the following:
1) Apply scientific attitudes to scrutinize and investigate the precise source of the virus outbreak, and be as factual and transparent as possible. Hold the responsible persons accountable and penalize those who deserve the penalty.
2) Maintain morality in society and ethics in scientific research. Set up thorough ethic limits of scientific research to ban work that can bring harm to mankind to take place in the lab. Terminate and cancel resource funding to such kind of research, regardless if they are already in progress or imminent.
3) Intensify the governance and control levels of these labs, implement approval procedures at each hierarchy and hold those in charge responsible, based on facts that labs in China are already involved in "scientific researches" in these pathogenesis (of viruses).
4) Set up stringent regulatory framework for animal experiments in labs to eradicate all non-regulated acts.
The plea emphasized that only when the source of the virus is rigorously identified can future epidemic be effectively prevented from recurrence. It is imperative to investigate the source promptly without further delay. At the same time, we should reflect on the ultimate goals of scientific research and development of the country. Such as, are the goals to beat the Western powers by the number of patents and research paper publication, or to improve the quality of life of the people, to pass on a clean and sustainable planet to our future generations?
Authors of this article
Bachelor’s degree in social sciences of the University of Hong Kong, Master’s degree of Sophia University, Japan, previously stationed in Tokyo for Asian Productivity Organization, Director of Greater China for an international accounting firm, member of the former Commission on Strategic Development of Hong Kong Government.
Bachelor Degree in Engineering, the University of Hong Kong, Master Degrees in Law and in Public Policy, the Australia National University.