By the day, it’s looking less likely that the coronavirus pandemic began with unhygienic exotic animals at the Wuhan wet market.
There is now also global scientific debate among geneticists, immunologists and virologists about whether SARS-CoV-2 was genetically altered or is a naturally occurring virus.
The conversation is moving quickly as more evidence emerges about COVID-19, now that scientists have had time to conduct detailed analysis of its genetic properties.
While intelligence agencies continue to probe the origins of the virus, a longstanding former member of the community contributed to the conversation this week with his view that it may have originated in a laboratory.
The former boss of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, told The Telegraph in the UK it is possible COVID-19 was manufactured in a laboratory, and he believes the pandemic “started as an accident”.
His comments came days after Australia’s former head of ASIO, DFAT and Defence, Dennis Richardson, told me accidents can happen in laboratories and there should be a security review of bio-containment facilities globally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just as significant were comments made by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control director, Gao Fu, who said the wet market helped spread the virus but was not the original source of the outbreak. This was an extraordinary statement from a senior member of the Chinese scientific community.
Several serious scientific papers have now also distanced the original outbreak from the wet market.
One of these is a scientific paper by Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the University of British Columbia, awaiting peer review, which stated that there is currently no evidence to show that the coronavirus originated in the wet market.
“There has been considerable debate among scientists and the public on whether SARS-CoV-2 originated from the Wuhan Huanan seafood market,” the paper states.
“However, phylogenetic tracking suggests that SARS-CoV-2 had been imported into the market by humans.”
China has either destroyed or suppressed most of the evidence from the earliest cases of COVID-19, bleaching market stalls, reportedly killing animals from the market and expunging virus samples that had been sent for testing.
There is now an emerging view in the scientific community that COVID-19 may have been created in a laboratory.
A number of European scientists no longer believe in a natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus after studying hundreds of papers on the matter.
Their view is mostly based on two characteristics about COVID-19 that scientists say are highly unusual.
The first is that it binds to a human ACE2 receptor cells more strongly than it does to any other animal.
The second is that it has a furin cleavage site insert at the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 which its closest genetic bat-coronavirus relative, RaTG-13, does not have.
This makes it highly infectious to humans.
It’s this sequence Dearlove referred to, referencing a scientific paper.
“Such an insertion is very rare in evolution, the addition of such four amino acids alone in the course of only 20 years is very unlikely,” Israeli geneticist, Dr Ronen Shemesh, who is working on a treatment for COVID-19, told me.
He said he believes genetic engineering “is the only way an insertion like the furin protease cleavage site could have been introduced directly at the right place and become effective”.
A preprint paper by Nobel prize winner Luc Montagnier and colleague Jean Claude Perez claims there are genetic fragments of the HIV1, HIV2 and SIV retroviruses present in the genome of COVID-19.
Their hypothesis is it is a “partially synthetic genome”.
Other scientists say that this furin cleavage site could have occurred naturally, and vehemently reject the findings made by their colleagues.
The point is, this is now a matter of genuine scientific debate.
Senior Australian government sources acknowledge this and say it would be “unwise to rule out the possibility” the virus was created in a laboratory.
The official government language is changing, too.
When I interviewed Minister for the Pacific and International Development Alex Hawke and chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee for Intelligence Andrew Hastie on my Sky program this week neither said the wet market was the most likely source of the outbreak.
“I think there’s a lot of contentions about (the origin) and all of them deserve to have some consideration and serious consideration,” Hawke said.
Hastie said “we have to be open-minded about all possibilities”.
“We can’t rush to any sort of judgment, we should have an open mind and an open mind is for closing,” he said.
Asked why he thinks the left section of the media wants to exclude the possibility COVID-19 may have leaked from a laboratory, he said: “Politics it seems is everywhere including in the media.
“As far as I’m concerned we should be open-minded and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions so let’s hope this issue isn’t weaponised any further and we get to the bottom of it.”
How deeply the world has been affected by COVID-19 — from the lives lost to the devastating economic destruction — has given rise to a global parliamentary bipartisan group set up to tackle China’s handling of the pandemic and its rising authoritarianism.
While well-known UK-based think-tank strategist Samuel Armstrong was a driving force in forming this global group, Hastie, James Paterson and Kimberley Kitching were among the core organisers who made it happen.
Tim Wilson, Amanda Stoker, Claire Chandler and Alex Antic are other inaugural Liberal members.
“This is the Wolverines gone global,” Paterson said.
The group, called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, will tackle Beijing’s crackdown on human rights, the handling of Hong Kong, the Uighurs, the South China Sea, and more.
“We have German Greens and Canadian Liberals and British Conservatives. These are not normally people who agree with each other. But on China we do,” Paterson said.
“We can find strength in this broad global solidarity which I believe will only grow and expand from here.”
It’s China’s cover-up of the virus that has brought such an unlikely group of MPs from all political stripes together.
And this group will need every ounce of strength, resolution and drive to get to the bottom of the pandemic’s origins.
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