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The idea of ​​a lab-leak release Coronavirus puts the necessary research space on display

Searching for answers on the origins of Covid-19 has focused attention around the world on a complex scientific issue previously man-made.

This work, known as “job benefit” research, involves the introduction of pathogens, often in order to be effective. The providers say it is important to understand how viruses work and how to prevent infections and treatments. Opponents say the risk of contracting one of these infections and leading to a pandemic is very high.

The controversy is so outrageous that former US President Barack Obama in 2014 stopped government funding for research into Sars, Mers and influenza viruses, during which the government issued strict guidelines. The ban was lifted and new laws were enacted in 2017 by Trump officials.

“If you are going to test something that is at risk of developing a new epidemic, there must be a good reason to support it,” said Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemics at Harvard.

And yet, job research, or similar work, continued after being banned from laboratories around the world, often with US money, and above all in the middle of a coronavirus-initiated debate: the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

An international team of 15 scientists working at the Wuhan Institute received $ 600,000 US government funding between 2015 and 2020 to investigate whether bat coronaviruses are endangered by humans, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The US Senate hearing this week.

As part of the project, the team – including well-known Chinese experts Shi Zhengli, the Chinese “batwoman” – incorporated two different coronaviruses, creating a dangerous species, which they found to be contagious, according to 2015 paper scientists who published in the journal Nature.

Shi Zhengli inside the P4 lab of Wuhan Institute © Feature China / Barcroft Media / Getty

On Tuesday Fauci denied that the experiment was a benefit of job research. However, the 2015 paper issued a stern warning: “Scientists under similar scrutiny may find that similar studies are building chimeric viruses based on the most dangerous genetic mutations.”

“These and restrictions represent the intersection of the GOF [gain of function] related to research, “the scientists wrote.” What we can do to prepare for and reduce future epidemics should be considered as the potential for pathogens. “

The warning has been sounding since some scientists, still lacking convincing evidence that Sars-Cov-2 jumped naturally from people from bats or through an animal group, have also highlighted the potential from the Wuhan Institute.

“We need to take ideas about nature and laboratories lightly until we have enough knowledge,” a team of scientists including Ralph Baric, one of the authors of the 2015 paper, wrote. open letter this month.

A study by the World Health Organization, sponsored by China, identified earlier this year that “it is highly unlikely” Sars-Cov-2 came out of the study area. But this was criticized in March by countries including the US and the UK, as well as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, who said the study was “not enough”.

US President Joe Biden this week ordered his law firm to see also evidence because the lab comes up with ideas and completes it within 90 days. China social media has repeated denied that removing the lab was possible and described the doctrine as “conspiracy”.

This new interest has raised serious questions in the US National Institutes of Health about its relationship with the Wuhan Institute and its research. Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance – a non-governmental organization that NIH managed its finances -, like Fauci, has already been rejected that their work in Wuhan was a job search benefit, in part because it was not aimed at exacerbating the disease in the population.

Baric, NIH, EcoHealthAlliance and the Wuhan Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

But even though the NIH-funded work in Wuhan was selected, other experts, including Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, say it should not be done.

“Regardless of whether the Covid-19 epidemic was caused by a jump in the lab, the fact that the results are reasonable means that it has a research team that we are not supposed to provide or support,” Ebright said.

Ebright also questioned security in Wuhan. In 2016, other scientists including Shi and EcoHealth director Peter Daszak used NIH funds to conduct tests in Wuhan on live coronaviruses in a biosafety level 2 lab, according to published much of the work. BSL-2 compounds are often used for low-risk applications, while researchers can test on open benches wearing only shirts and gloves.

“If this work is happening, it should not be happening in BSL-2,” Ebright said. “This is similar to the official dental office.”

China’s first biosafety level 4 lab, where the most dangerous work takes place, was opened in Wuhan in 2018. Daszak did not respond to a request for comment.

Ebright is not alone in his problems. In 2018, American ambassadors to China he said he sent the ropes to Washington warns: “The new lab [at Wuhan] have a serious shortage of research experts and researchers who are required to make the most of this laboratory. ”

Although scientists say the world cannot know if Covid-19 originated naturally or in Wuhan’s lab, many believe that the epidemic has shown why this research should not have taken place at all.

Milton Leitenberg, an biologist at the University of Maryland, says: “Anything we can say is out of place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

More from Yuan Yang and Nian Liu in Beijing

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