Did coronavirus accidentally escape from a Wuhan lab? It’s doubtful. | The Fact Checker

In the absence of crucial information on how the novel coronavirus began many theories have gained traction — one is that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. But does any evidence support that origin story?

There are a number of reasons why this theory has gained traction over the past few weeks, primarily because U.S. intelligence and lawmakers have said they want to investigate it. At least two labs in Wuhan research bat coronaviruses: the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have become a focal point of suspicion, in part because of their proximity to the Huanan seafood market, where a cluster of the first cases of the new coronavirus appeared.

Speculation has also been heightened because of the actions of Chinese officials. Before the Chinese government had even alerted the WHO to the growing epidemic, scientists were told to destroy early samples of the virus, according to the Straits Times, making it difficult to find the virus’s origins. The Fact Checker spoke to several scientists and researchers about what, if any, evidence there is that a lab accident led to the release of the virus that causes covid-19. Read more: https://wapo.st/3bVFU3E. SPECIAL OFFER: To thank you for your support, here’s a deal on a Washington Post digital subscription: $29 for one year http://washingtonpost.com/youtubeoffer.

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Transcript

-This is the Wuhan
seafood market.On January 1st,
it was shut down.Many of the early cluster
of confirmed caseshad been in the market,
so officials fearedthat COVID-19 was linked
to trade and wild animals.It sold everything, from snakes
to birds to foxes and rabbits.But the viruses most similar
to the new coronavirusthat causes COVID-19
are from batsthat live in caves
a thousand miles away,but just because they're similar
doesn't mean they're the same.-I just am baffled
about this story.-As of late April,
experts don't haveall the information we need
to say where the virus started.-If the Chinese know evidence,of course they're not telling us
or anybody else.-With the absence of crucial
evidence comes many theories.One is that it came from nature,which scientists say
seems most likely.Another theory is that
it was a bioweapon,which scientists say
there's zero evidence for.-I guess without putting
too fine of a point on it,it would fall in the realm
of conspiracy theory.-We're going to focus
on one theorythat both US intelligence
and lawmakers are examining,that the virus
accidentally escaped from a lab.At least two labs in Wuhan
research bat coronaviruses,the Wuhan Institute of Virology
and the Wuhan branchof the Chinese Centers for
Disease Control & Prevention.They have become the focal
point of suspicion,not only because
of the work that they dobut because of their location.Both are close to the market.The Wuhan Institute of Virology
is about eight miles away,and the Wuhan branch
of the Chinese Centersfor Disease Control &
Prevention is just 300 yards.Safety concerns at both labs
have come up in recent years.For instance, in this video,
we see one of the scientistsfrom the Wuhan Centers
for Disease Controls &Prevention doing research
on coronaviruses in batswhile not wearing
protective gear,but regardless, if researchers
are in the fieldor in the lab,
most bat coronavirusesscientists have identified
aren't dangerous to humans.-They're not considered
major potential pathogensbecause they just don't
grow very wellin other species
besides bats.-That's why most labs
who study bat coronavirusesdo not require the highest
level of safety protocols.The safety situation at the
other lab is a bit different.The Wuhan Institute of Virology
houses multiple labs,including one that has
the highest levelof biological safety protocols,
biosafety level four.It is designed to containsome of the world's
most dangerous viruses.-BL-4 is the ones you will see
in films with people in a suitand an air hose
attached behind them,and they're completely enclosed
and protected.-When China first brought
the lab online,it was with the explicit goal
of studying coronaviruses.-China wanted to set up
its own laboratoryafter the SARS outbreak
to study SARS-relevant pathogensso that they could do that
on their own territorywithout having to rely
on the international system.-Shi Zhengli —
she's one of the world's expertson bat coronavirusesand is based at
the Wuhan Institute of Virology.-The work we do with
the Wuhan Institute of Virologyis to look for viruses in batsthat we think could be
the next pandemic.-That work and the higher safety
protocols have led to suspicionthat Shi was working with more
dangerous bat coronaviruses,ones that could infect humans.-Recent reports have come outthat there were concerns
being raisedby US scientists and diplomats
about the level of safety,training, and general protocols
there and concernthat this was the kind of thing
that could lead to leakage.-Two years ago,
American officials voiceda variety of concerns
about these labs,including the ominous warningthat there was
a serious shortageof appropriately trained
technicians and investigators.-Without fail, every single
BSL-4 lab in the USgets some type
of safety violation,some type of, you know,
thing that they could do better,and that's the purpose
of doing those inspections,is to make sure
that biosafety is as tightand secure
as it can possibly be.-But even in the most safe labs,
things go wrong.That same 2018 State Department
cable that describedthe possible safety issuesalso warned about the dangerous
nature of Shi's research.They wrote, "Researches also
showed various SARS-likecoronaviruses
can interact with ACE2,the human receptor identified
for SARS-coronavirus.This find strongly suggeststhat SARS-like coronaviruses
from batscan be transmitted to humans
to cause SARS-like diseases."Shi's team reported this
in a 2017 paper,but that paper doesn't show
these coronavirus sampleswere effective
at infecting humans.And the virus used
in that researchwas not the virus
that causes COVID-19.It's the underlaying experiment
that has raised flags.Researchers at one point had
a live virusthat could infect a human cell.Just weeks into the outbreak,
researchers from Shi's labfound the virus
had a 96% similaritywith a bat coronavirus
they had previously researched.-So they both come from,
you know,this same distant relative,same, like, great-great-great
virus-grandfather.-And though these two viruses
have diverged, that 4% change,it's the part that makes
all of the difference to us.-The part of the virus
that binds to the receptoron human cells
for the SARS-Co-V-2,it's very different
than the bat coronavirus,the part that allows the animal
virus to infect humans.Otherwise, it's interesting,but it's not gonna cause
any outbreaks in people.-That means this virus and other
currently knownbat coronaviruses
could've picked up the featuresfrom just the right
intermediary animal,allowing it to be able
to jump to humans.-And really, what we won't
be able to find outunless we can identifywhether there is
an intermediate species.We have to actually see
the ancestor of SARS-Co-V-2to know exactly what type
of adaptations it underwentin order to be able
to infect humans,the smoking pangolin
or the smoking whatever else.-Of course, the potential
of great-great-greatvirus-grandfather isn't the only
bat coronavirus in Shi's lab.Even Shi was initially concerned
that her labcould've caused the outbreak.But since then, she says she's
ruled out the possibility.Shi, her team, and the Chinese
government have adamantly deniedthat it could've come
from this lab.-There's no way this virus
came from us.-China's been incredibly open,and I believe it's because
it's a scientific collaboration.And in China, they're really
proud of their science.They do good work,
especially in virology.-The evidence that
a lab accidentled to the release of the virus
that causesCOVID-19 is circumstantial,
but speculation has heightenedbecause of the actions
of Chinese officials.First, before the Chinese
government had even alertedthe World Health Organization
to the growing epidemic,scientists were told to destroy
early samples of the virus,according to the Times.After the Chinese government
reported the virus to the WHO,officials quickly pointed
to the seafood marketas the source of the virus
and shut it down.-The Chinese government
acknowledged it began in Wuhanand put out this story
of the wet market.It was a kind of unusual,specific pinning on the part
of the Chinese government,like not their general way
of operating.-But many of the first-known
COVID-19 caseswere not traceable
to the Huanan Seafood Market.-The initial patient did not
have any link to the market.-The Chinese government reportedthat they had found samples
of the coronavirusin the western end of the market
that is known to house wildlife,but to confirm that,
scientists would need specimensfrom the animals in the market.-As of today,
as to my knowledge,and I look for this
every single day for 112 days,China has not divulged
any informationabout what animals they tested
from the marketwhen the closed it,and, of course, what the results
of any of those tests were.-The only way to find an answer
to this mystery is with a samplethat matches both the virus
and matches the first patients,which scientists
haven't been able to find.Even if there was a perfect
match to the virusin one of these labs,without early patient samples,
there's no way to be sure.The balance of scientific
evidence strongly suggeststhe conclusion that the new
coronavirus emerged from nature,be it in the Wuhan market
or somewhere else.Too many perfect coincidences
would've had to take placefor it
to have escaped from a lab,but the Chinese government
has not been willingor able to provide informationthat would clarify
lingering questionsabout any possible role
played by the Wuhan labs.-Seems like such a remarkable
coincidencethat you have an outbreak
of a coronavirus in theoryfrom a bat
in the same citywhere there is this high level
BSL-4 laboratorywhere not only are there foreign
concerns about its safety,but there are, like,
Chinese articlesabout the safety protocols
not being sufficient.And obviously,
there's no smoking gun.It's all circumstantial,
but it's pretty remarkable.And it's the kind of thing
where it raises questions.-That is why
intelligence agenciesare still exploring
the possibility,no matter how remote it may be,
and even then, it's unclear whenor if we will ever know
the origin storyof this new virus
that is causing so much deathand economic turmoil
around the globe.

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