US President Joe Biden on May 26, 2021, announced that he had asked the US Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 virus. The investigation will assess whether the coronavirus originated from an infected animal or a laboratory leak. The report will be prepared and sent to him in 90 days.
Where did the coronavirus come from?
Team of scientists, governments across the world, health organizations are on a mission to find where did the coronavirus come from. Some speculate the SaRS-CoV-2 originated in the bats (wildlife) while there are strong claims regarding a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology where researchers were studying samples of a coronavirus strain.
Timeline of the claims of origin of COVID-19 virus:
2019: The first identification came when WHO informed of pneumonia cases due to unknown cause in Wuhan city in December 2019. Later, in January 2020, a novel coronavirus was declared as the cause by the Chinese authorities.
2020: Researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology stated that the COVID-19 virus has a 96.2 per cent match with a bat coronavirus, RaTG13. A few days later, a researcher from the South China University of Technology claimed that the SaRS-CoV-2 originated from a lab in Wuhan. The claim was later withdrawn due to pressure.
Later, few scientists from the Lancet quashed the theory of coronavirus originating from a lab leak rather they said it came from wildlife.
While the US Defense Intelligence Agency in its assessment concluded that ‘unsafe lab practices’ are most likely a possibility for COVID-19. Former President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported the theory of the origin of the COVID-19 virus due to a lab leak in Wuhan.
Several reports started floating during that time that stated the origin of a virus similar to coronavirus was found in 2012 in a mine in China which was being studied by researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology.
2021: A ‘fact sheet’ by the US State Department stating a strong claim about the origin of COVID-19 from a lab leak in Wuhan Institute of Virology surfaced during the last days of the Trump Administration.
In March, WHO said that it finds the lab leak theory inconclusive though the WHO Secretary-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said all theories are under consideration.
A group of scientists from Science magazine demanded an inquiry into the ‘natural and lab leak’ possibilities to establish a conclusive report on the origin of the COVID-19 virus.
Several reports into the origin of COVID-19 stated that lung patches similar to those with COVID-19 were found in the miners who had died in a mine in Yunan in 2012 and the researchers were studying those samples and fell sick in November 2019.
COVID-19 and Wuhan Institute of Virology: Background
The researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were studying the samples of feces of bats in a mine in Yunan, where six miners had died in 2012. Among those samples, they had found a coronavirus strain (RaBTCoV/4991). In 2020, the researchers said in a report that RaTG13 was a 96.2 per cent match with SaRS-CoV-2.
Scientists across the world noted a similarity between genetic sequences and sample dates of RaBTCoV/4991 and RaTG13 to which the researchers at Wuhan Institute said they are the same virus but not the one that caused the death of six miners in Yunan back in 2012.
Further reports also noted that lung patches similar to those with COVID-19 were found in the miners who had died in a mine in Yunan in 2012 and the researchers who were studying those samples along with the RaBTCoV/4991 and RaTG13 strains fell sick in November 2019.
The Wuhan Lab Leak
The Wuhan lab leak was earlier floated in September 2020 during the time of former President Donald Trump but was quashed as a racist, right-wing conspiracy theory.
However, the theory resurfaced in January 2021 during the last days of the Trump Administration and a ‘fact sheet’ was made public by the US State Department that gave out some ‘previously undisclosed information’ along with open-source information.
What was the ‘undisclosed information’ in the ‘fact sheet’?
The fact sheet by the US State Department stated that the researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were found sick with symptoms resembling COVID-19 days before the first COVID-19 case was reported on December 8, 20219.
The researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were conducting experiments on a bat coronavirus that was a 96.2 per cent match with the COVID-19 virus. The bat coronavirus, labeled as RaTG13 was derived from the samples of feces of bats in a mine in Yunan, where six miners had died in 2012.
The Wuhan Institute stated that it was conducting classified military research for the People’s Liberation Army.
Why was further investigation ordered into the origin of coronavirus?
While the first case of COVID-19 was identified in December 2019, the same researchers at the Wuhan Institute reported about these two coronavirus strains RaBTCoV/4991 and RaTG13 in February 2020 leading to concern over the transparency of data.
Further, WHO in March 2021 had released a 120-page report but it lacked any conclusive information on the origin of COVID-19. The report stated that a lab leak was unlikely rather the virus originated from an infected animal and transmitted to humans. However, WHO Secretary-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said all theories are under consideration. The US and 13 more countries then expressed concern to expedite further investigation into the origin of COVID-19.
At that time, the Biden administration stopped the US State Department’s further investigation into the lab leak theory stating it as a waste of resources and time but after pressure across the world and WHO’s inconclusive report on the origin of COVID-19, and the lack of transparency of data from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the investigation was reconsidered.
Biden then announced a further investigation into the origin of coronavirus at a World Health Assembly meeting. Except for China, no other country opposed the inquiry.
China’s dismissal of inquiry into COVID-19 origin
Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian said the inquiry announced by the US President is a means to instigate stigmatization, blame-shifting, and political manipulation.
India’s stance on inquiry into COVID-19 origin
Arindam Bagchi, Spokesperson, External Affairs Ministry said that the study conducted by the WHO into the origin of coronavirus has been an important step and further investigation to generate a conclusive report on the same requires the cooperation of all.