A WHO investigator’s take on why virus lab-leak theory is flawed

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China appeared open and co-operative with the international investigation into COVID-19’s origins, an Australian investigator says.

Professor Dominic Dwyer, director of public health pathology in NSW, was among 17 international experts who travelled to Wuhan in January as part of a World Health Organisation study team investigating the source of the pandemic.

Professor Dominic Dwyer, seen here in hotel quarantine on his return to Sydney from Wuhan.Credit:Rhett Wyman

The team’s report concluded the most likely cause of the pandemic was a virus jumping from one animal species to another – possibly bat to pangolin – and then into humans.

This view is also supported by the Australasian Virology Society, Australia’s peak body of virus experts.

A lab leak was considered “extremely unlikely”, the WHO team concluded.

Australian and American intelligence agencies are less certain.US intelligence agencies are split 2-1 in favour of a natural origin being more likely, The Age has reported. Last month US President Joe Biden called for a new intelligence investigation into the possibility of a lab leak.

Examine, a free weekly science newsletter written by national science reporter Liam Mannix, is sent every Tuesday. This week, subscribers get a full-length transcript of the interview with Professor Dominic Dwyer, answering all your big lab-leak questions. Sign up to get it in your inbox here.

The key flaw in the lab-leak hypothesis, said Professor Dwyer, was there was no evidence the Wuhan Institute of Virology had the virus that causes COVID-19 before the pandemic.

“The laboratory leak, for that to be the origin … meant they must have had the virus to begin with, and we don’t have evidence of that.

“The lab leak sits there, but you need some sort of evidence to take it further.”

Professor Dwyer said the team was not asked to conduct a forensic audit of the institute’s files and viruses.

“The lab leak sits there, but you need some sort of evidence to take it further,” Professor Dwyer said.

Some have pointed to the lab pulling a database of viruses offline as evidence China was hiding evidence.

“The explanation they gave was they had had many hacking attempts on this, and that’s why they closed it down. I cannot vouchsafe for that, but that’s what they said,” Professor Dwyer said.

“All the locations we asked about visiting, they let us visit. I think they were pretty open.”

Given the institute was working to find and publish scientific papers on new bat coronaviruses – in 2016 it reported on a virus that is the closest-known match to COVID-19 so far – it was unlikely it would have had SARS-CoV-2 and not published a paper about it, he said.

“They are a pretty prominent research institute. They publish a lot of very good papers and have collaborations with people around the world. If they had it, there was no reason to hide it from a scientific or intellectual point of view.”

Another theory is the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting “gain of function” experiments – in which a virus is deliberately manipulated to increase its ability to infect.

Professor Dwyer said such research was done at labs around the world.

“The institute haven’t published anything significant on gain-of-function studies. I’m not expert in that area, but my understanding is they weren’t doing gain-of-function work that has been obviously traceable.”

In a widely shared essay in May, science journalist Nicholas Wade argued the intermediate host for the coronavirus SARS was found within four months of that outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months.

Inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology.Credit:AP

Professor Dwyer said it had actually taken 15 years to find the animal source of SARS.

“Take Ebola for example. We have been dealing with outbreaks for 40-odd years, but it’s really only in the last few years the origins of that virus have become apparent,” he said. “These things can take time.”

With no evidence the Wuhan Institute of Virology had a copy of SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic, the study team concluded a lab leak was extremely unlikely.

“We felt transmission from bat to some sort of intermediate animal to humans was the most likely because it has occurred before – and not just once before, but several times,” he said.

“Based on history, based on thing like what markets are like in Wuhan and other neighbouring countries … that seems to be the most likely scenario for it to develop.”

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