Revealed: US funds study on bat coronavirus at Wuhan Institute of Virology

While the current coronavirus outbreak is no doubt zoonotic—originating from animals—scientists said, ministers and senior government officials claim that the pandemic could have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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Image Credit: Wuhan Virology Institute

The Daily Mail revealed that studies of bat coronaviruses conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were funded by the United States’ National Institutes of Health. The Chinese lab, which some scientists believe could be the source of the controversial outbreak, was provided a $3.7 million grant from the United States government to “provide new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.”

Documents obtained by the Daily Mail confirmed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type in China, “has been carrying out research on bats from the cave” located in Yunnan, China to find more out about the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which emerged in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. The bats from the cave in Kunming—located in the Yunnan Province— were “trapped and faecal swab samples were collected” by veterinarians on 10 separate occasions during different seasons between April 2011 and October 2015.

The research, which was summarized as “bats in a cave in Yunnan, China were captured and sampled for coronaviruses used for lab experiments,” was then published in November 2017 in a study headlined, “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.”

While the study confirmed “none of the currently known bat SARSr-CoVs is thought to be the direct ancestor of SARS-CoV,” the study offered “a clearer picture on the evolutionary origin of SARS-CoV and highlights the risk of future emergence of SARS-like diseases.”

According to the author summary, published in the journal, Plos Pathogens:

“Herein, we report the identification of a diverse group of bat SARSr-CoVs in a single cave in Yunnan, China. Importantly, all of the building blocks of SARS-CoV genome, including the highly variable S gene, ORF8 and ORF3, could be found in the genomes of different SARSr-CoV strains from this single location. Based on the analysis of full-length genome sequences of the newly identified bat SARSr-CoVs, we speculate that the direct ancestor of SARS-CoV may have arisen from sequential recombination events between the precursors of these bat SARSr-CoVs prior to spillover to an intermediate host. In addition, we found bat SARSr-CoV strains with different S proteins that can all use the receptor of SARS-CoV in humans (ACE2) for cell entry, suggesting diverse SARSr-CoVs capable of direct transmission to humans are circulating in bats in this cave.”

Another study, which was also funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in which Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is a part of, titled “Fatal swine acute diarrhea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin” identified a 2016 bat-related coronavirus outbreak on Chinese pig farms, which prompted researchers to capture and sample the bats in a cave, the Daily Mail reported. Researchers then grew the virus in the lab and “injected it into three-day-old piglets.”

According to a news release issued by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

“A newly identified coronavirus that killed nearly 25,000 piglets in 2016-17 in China emerged from horseshoe bats near the origin of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which emerged in 2002 in the same bat species. The new virus is named swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV). It does not appear to infect people, unlike SARS-CoV which infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774. No SARS-CoV cases have been identified since 2004. The study investigators identified SADS-CoV on four pig farms in China’s Guangdong Province. The work was a collaboration among scientists from EcoHealth Alliance, Duke-NUS Medical School, Wuhan Institute of Virology and other organizations, and was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The research is published in the journal Nature.

The researchers say the finding is an important reminder that identifying new viruses in animals and quickly determining their potential to infect people is a key way to reduce global health threats.”

While the current coronavirus outbreak is no doubt zoonotic—originating from animals—scientists said, ministers and senior government officials claim that the pandemic could have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One “unverified claim” said that “scientists at the institute could have become infected after being sprayed with blood containing the virus, and then passed it on to the local community,” the Daily Mail reported.

Cao Bin, a doctor at the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, confirmed that “13 of the first 41 patients diagnosed with the infection had not had any contact with the market.”

“It seems clear that the seafood market is not the only origin of the virus,” Bin said.

United States Congressman Matt Gaetz said he was “disgusted” to learn such experiments were being conducted without the “oversight of United States authorities.”

“I’m disgusted to learn that for years the U.S. government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from U.S. authorities,” Gaetz said.

But still “the balance of scientific advice” is that the virus was transmitted to humans from a live animal market in Wuhan, the Chinese Embassy said.

Anthony Bellotti, president of the U.S. pressure group White Coat Waste, said, “animals infected with viruses or otherwise sickened and abused in Chinese labs reportedly may be sold to wet markets for consumption once experiments are done.”

A letter from the Chinese Embassy denounced the Daily Mail’s reporting about “the possible leak from the Wuhan Institute,” claiming it “is irresponsible and will definitely do harm to international co-operation at this critical time” to “shift the blame before any scientific conclusion.”

As more information is revealed “further doubt” is being cast on the “animal market theory” as the coronavirus ravages through countries.

Update: This story was updated to quote scientists who said the “the current coronavirus outbreak is no doubt zoonotic—originating from animals.”

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