• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

Was COVID-19 Engineered in China? The facts behind the theory.

It is undeniable that many misguided decisions have been made since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result of the misinformation that was thrown our way, we failed to produce the right reactions. Instead of terminating travel, we were told to settle for lenient public restrictions, and instead of recognizing the severity of the virus, we continued with our daily lives, trusting that the situation would not escalate.

And although our governments have been blamed for the position we are in today; it must be noted that they were simply voicing the beliefs of health organizations who supposedly knew best.

As soon as the coronavirus became global news, the WHO was slow to announce a global pandemic. Despite warnings from Taiwanese doctors, we were told that the virus could not pass from human to human, and even when it was proven that the virus was indeed transmissible, it took the WHO another week to declare the spread of the virus a global health emergency.

A story was then established, claiming that the virus originated in a wet market in Wuhan, despite new evidence, highlighted in The Guardian, showing that the first known patient carrying the illness had no direct link to the market.

All in all, the information we have been given thus far is questionable, and has, therefore, encouraged many to doubt the authenticity of the information we are receiving today.

So, it should come as no surprise that a sudden wave of theories has overtaken the media.

There are certain theories, such as the 5G speculation, that have absolutely no basis. Others, however, do create room for speculation and have taken social media by storm.

Despite scientists finding no signs the coronavirus had been engineered, in this article, I wanted to investigate one of the most widespread theories, where it came from, and whether it has any evidence to support it.

The Theory:

A recent hypothesis that has sparked great controversy, even being featured on news reports, revolves around a scientist named Ron Fouchier who is believed to have engineered SARS-CoV-2 through ‘gain of function’ experiments.

‘Gain of function’ experiments refers to the manipulation of viruses in order to enhance certain properties that, usually, make the virus more dangerous to the human race. This type of research is done for the purpose of anticipating future pandemics but has been widely criticized due to health risks.

It is thought that Fouchier carried out a ‘gain of function’ experiment on a SARS-like virus, called the SCH014, found in horseshoe bats in China, giving it the backbone of the SARS virus, and injecting it with HIV properties.

The theory then goes on to state that Fouchier’s work was suspended by the U.S. government (due to the potential health risks of an escaped virus from his labs), and that, in response, Fouchier went and provided a 3.7 million dollar fund to a virology institute in Wuhan, which houses that largest collection of coronaviruses from wild bats.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology then continued to carry out ‘gain of function experiments,’ until one of their viruses, the SHC014, was accidentally leaked, causing the pandemic we are experiencing today.

The facts:

Most of the accusations made above did actually take place, however, not in the way portrayed through this theory.

To begin with, Fouchier’s fame as a world-renowned virologist began with his research into the H5N1 flu virus, not the SCH014 virus (that many blame as the cause of COVID-19.)

Nevertheless, Fouchier did carry out ‘gain of function’ experiments.

He wanted to investigate what it would take to mutate the H5N1 virus, which only infected birds, to a plague virus that could infect humans, in hopes of understanding influenza viruses and predicting their evolution.

Fouchier bred the H5N1 virus in his lab and passed it through animals in a process called ‘animal passage.’ After passing the virus through 10 of these animals, Fouchier noticed that a different creature became ill, despite not having the virus injected in it, showing that the virus was infectious.

Ron Fouchier had succeeded in creating a potential pandemic.

Ron Fouchier was able to make the H5N1 virus airborne. Credits: Erasmus MC

The belief that Fouchier had been previously involved in coronavirus research most likely originates from another discovery he made in 2012.

A year after his work on H5N1, Fouchier was mailed a sample of an unknown virus which had caused a strange case of pneumonia in a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man. Fouchier was able to sequence the virus, discovering that it was a new strain of the coronavirus, closely related to SARS, which was also linked to bats. However, this strain was not easily transmitted between humans.

Fouchier wanted to continue his research into influenza viruses, more specifically into 'gain of function' experiments, however, the U.S. government began to fear an accidental leak from Fouchier’s lab and suspended his research.

In October 2013, after significant debate, the US government put a stop (or, a moratorium) to all federal funding for gain-of-function studies.

Fouchier continued to fight against this decision, claiming that his research was to ‘prevent pandemics’ not ‘make them.’ He ended up losing this case, terminating his ‘gain of function’ research in the U.S.

Now, you may be wondering why people believe Fouchier manufactured the novel coronavirus.

This part of the theory can actually be traced back to scientists at the University of North Carolina and virologists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), completely independent of Fouchier.

Before the moratorium was announced in the U.S., a team of scientists were investigating a virus called SHC014, found in horseshoe bats in China. With the help of Zhengli-Li Shi, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the team were able to use cut-and-paste genetic engineering, taking a snippet of the original SARS coronavirus, and inserting it into the SHC014, enabling the virus to attach to human airways.

In 2015, their research was published in Nature Medicine.

Despite popular belief, there is no evidence that links Ron Fouchier to the research above.

It is true that the WIV, with the support of the North Carolina University, meddled with the SHC014, and inserted SARS properties. However, no evidence has shown that they inserted the HIV virus as well.

This belief was fuelled by a widely read scientific paper from the Indian Institute of Technology that claimed COVID-19 shared an “uncanny similarity” with the HIV virus. However, this paper has since been refuted and was ultimately withdrawn.

Another aspect of this theory that does carry some truth to it, but has been greatly exaggerated, is the claim that $3.7 million dollars were funded to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The WIV, which hires the same scientists who experimented on the SHC014, began to gain public attention due to its specific research into coronaviruses carried in bats, its possession of a virus that shares 96% of its genetic material with SARS-CoV-2, and because of its proximity to the Wuhan wet market (where the virus is said to have originated.)

Note: A 4 percent difference in a genome is actually huge in evolutionary terms, roughly equivalent to an average of 50 years of evolutionary change.

The WIV is only a 30 minute drive from the Seafood Market. Credits: Google Earth

Although 3.7 million dollars were funded to support coronavirus research, Ron Fouchier was not the funding body, the National Institute of Health was, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not receive all 3.7 million dollars.

The funds provided by the NIH sponsored many institutes around the World, not just the WIV, to aid with researching how bat coronaviruses could emerge and spread to the human population.

This interest in coronaviruses is not out of the ordinary. Following the 2002 outbreak of SARS, many nations became increasingly wary of influenza-like viruses. Over the next few years, huge sums of money were pumped into institutions that investigated the spread of viruses due to wild animals, in hopes of preventing the next major pandemic.

It just so happened that the WIV was one of the institutes that specialized in this type of research.

Finally, fear surrounding whether it was possible that the coronavirus leaked from the WIV emerged from a Washington Post newspaper that reported how 2 U.S. science diplomats sent two warnings to Washington about inadequate safety at the WIV lab.

This theory was further fuelled when President Trump publicly announced that the U.S. government would be looking into whether the virus leaked from Wuhan labs, stating that he had seen evidence that led him to believe this assumption.

Zhengli-Li Shi, who led the team of scientists researching bat coronaviruses in WIV, confirmed that none of the viruses she had sampled from bat caves matched those of SARS-CoV-2, assuring the public that it could not have come from her lab.

And, of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that Trump was simply trying to divert attention from his failure to contain the coronavirus, by using China as a scapegoat.

This year has certainly seen some strange and historical events. From the possibility of a World war to a pandemic that has shifted the very foundation of our lives, 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered in history books.

And although the truth is always necessary for situations like this, scratching our heads and pointing fingers when thousands are dying should not be our main priority.

As shown above, the theory believed by many across the World has been largely taken out of context. It is very unlikely that the virus was developed and leaked from a lab in Wuhan, similar to how it's unlikely that a scientist named Ron Fouchier was the mastermind behind it all.

Still, the fact that the virus appeared from a wet market in Wuhan, 20 miles from a virology lab that specifically studied coronaviruses in bats, is a strange coincidence that raises some eyebrows.

Only time will reveal the truth.

Until then, I urge you to stay home, stay safe, and keep in contact with those you love.