Letter in response to Australasian Virology Society
On 25 April 2023 the Australasian Virology Society published a letter stating that they thought the zoonosis hypothesis had the strongest supporting evidence for the origin of SARS-2. They further asserted that Gain of Function research has been proven to be safe and necessary, and that virology are already sufficiently regulated. [https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/jvi.00451-23#body-ref-B8]
The SARS-2 bat coronavirus originated in a city 1,000 miles from the relevant bats which was considered to be a low risk location [Sanchez22]. The city also happened to host the world’s leading bat coronavirus laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This was shortly after the WIV had published their earlier gain of function research, and had proposed further work to add a Furin Cleavage Site (FCS) to a coronavirus in exactly the place it is found in SARS-2. No closely related virus has this FCS, which is thus “inconsistent with evolutionary theory”. The WIV was criticized for performing this reckless virology at the grossly inadequate BSL-2.
There is no credible evidence for a zoonosis. Unlike MERS and SARS-1, no intermediate animal has been found despite an extensive search, and unlike MERS and SARS-1, SARS-2 emerged suddenly without an adaption phase. Sampling from the Huanan market found no infected animals making it an unlikely source of the pandemic [Lui23]. The virus originated before December 2019, and was spread by people that travel throughout Wuhan, so any naive geographic analysis in January 2020 is inherently flawed.
This large amount of evidence makes the letter’s assertion that the zoonosis hypothesis is most likely seems disingenuous at best. Robert Redfield (Head of the USA CDC in 2020) and John Ratcliffe (Head of USA Intelligence in 2020) have concluded that a lab accident was by far the most likely source of SARS-2.
The letter then asserts that Gain of Function (GoF) research has proved safe, despite the fact that Covid-19 has killed millions of people. GoF has in practice been far, far more dangerous than other tightly regulated research such as nuclear fission. Moreover, there are no tangible benefits that can be attributed specifically to GoF research.
Finally, the letter asserts that there is already sufficient regulation of virology. There is in fact minimal external regulation with the force of law in either the USA or Australia. In the USA the toothless and secretive P3CO committee has only reviewed 3 research proposals since its inception.
Improvements in technology and it’s wide availability means that another disastrous lab accident is possible if not likely. Covid-19 clearly demonstrated the damage a virus can cause, whether engineered or not. There might also be a deliberate release. Airline pilots have been known to deliberately crash airliners and pilots undergo extensive psychological testing, unlike the tens of thousands of Ph.D.s that now have the technology to create dangerous viruses.
The next pandemic could be far, far worse than Covid-19. An asymptomatic virus with a longer incubation period and higher fatality rate would be devastating. Reform of Virology is urgent and important.
This must not be allowed to happen again.
[Sanchez22] Cecilia A. Sánchez et. al. Echo Health Alliance
A strategy to assess spillover risk of bat SARS-related coronaviruses in Southeast Asia
[Lui23] William Liu, et. al. George Gao.
Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 at the Huanan Seafood Market