Almost absent for a year from the public debate, the hypothesis of a laboratory accident as the origin of the pandemic of Covid-19 is increasingly discussed, in the press but also in the academic world, while that of a natural “zoonotic overflow“remains to this day considered the most probable by a large number of scientists. Yet, to the president of the United States Joe Biden The growing doubts on the part of the academic community have certainly not escaped, to the point of announcing, on May 26, that it had asked its intelligence services for a detailed report on the matter.
If the doubt has subsided, it is first of all because almost eighteen months after the outbreak began, research has not revealed the closest ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 on animals that could have served as a bridge between the bat. and man. None have been identified yet host intermedio. In addition, new elements indicated on social networks by independent and anonymous researchers – in particular collected in an informal collective called “Drastic” – over the months have highlighted the unspoken and contradictions of the Chinese authorities and researchers, as well as the opacity of some research conducted a Wuhan. These elements, like others, raise several questions.
Wuhan, the head of the laboratory in 2015: “A new virus could infect humans.” And Fauci asks China for medical records
Although particularly explosive, the press release had gone rather unnoticed. On January 15, in the last hours of the administration Trump, the US State Department announced that it had “reason to believe that several WIV researchers (Wuhan Institute of Virology) had fallen ill in the fall of 2019, before the discovery of the first positive from Coronavirus. The researchers in question, the State Department added, had presented “symptoms corresponding to both Covid-19 and common seasonal diseases”. Four months later, the Wall Street Journal gets access to a report of the American secret services which states that the three WIV researchers had “fallen ill in November 2019 and were then hospitalized”. The newspaper, however, also added that the reliability of the sources have divergent assessments. However, even if it were possible to prove the veracity of the report, it would not lead to the conclusion of a laboratory accident: WIV scientists who fell ill in November may have contracted the disease outside their workplace.
“Bat Woman” and them
les Demaneuf, 52, is a data scientist at the Bank of New Zealand in Auckland. At the beginning of last spring, as cities around the world were closing to stop the spread of COVID-19, Demaneuf – as reported by a long article by Vanity Fair – began researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. The prevailing theory was that he had switched from bats to some other species before making the leap to humans at a market in China, where some of the earliest cases appeared in late 2019. Huanan Wholesale Market in Wuhan City , is a complex of stalls where fish, meat, fruit and vegetables are sold. A handful of vendors also offered live wildlife – a possible source of the virus.
This wasn’t the only theory, though. Wuhan is also home to China’s premier coronavirus research laboratory, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of bat samples and bat virus strains. Wuhan Institute of Virology principal coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, was among the first to identify horseshoe bats as natural reservoirs for SARS-CoV. After SARS, bats became an important subject of study for virologists around the world and Shi became known in China as “Bat Woman“for his fearless exploration of their caves to collect samples. More recently, Shi and his colleagues at WIV performed high-profile experiments that made pathogens more infectious. As a result, it seemed natural for many to wonder if the virus that caused the global pandemic had somehow leaked from one of the WIV labs, a possibility Shi vehemently denied.
What about security?
On 19 February 2020, The Lancet, among the world’s most respected and influential medical journals, published a statement that categorically rejected the laboratory leak hypothesis, effectively calling it a xenophobic cousin of climate change denial and no-vaxes. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health workers in China” and stated: “We are united to strongly condemn conspiracy theories that suggest that COVID-19 has no natural origin.” The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate on the origins of COVID-19 before it began. For Gilles Demaneuf it was as if the question had been “nailed to the doors of the church,” the simulacrum of truth par excellence, establishing the theory of natural origin as orthodoxy. “Everyone had to follow him. Everyone was intimidated. ‘ To him, this statement seemed to contain no evidence or information. And so he decided to start his own investigation in a way, with no idea what he would find.
Demaneuf began looking for patterns in the available data and it wasn’t long before he spotted one. Chinese labs were said to be airtight, with safety practices equivalent to those in the United States and other developed countries. But Demaneuf soon discovered that since 2004 they had occurred four laboratory incidents related to SARS, two of which occurred in a flagship laboratory in Beijing. Due to overcrowding, a live SARS virus that had been improperly deactivated was moved to a refrigerator in a hallway. A graduate student then examined it in the electron microscope room and sparked an epidemic.
Demaneuf published his findings in a post on Medium, entitled ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Review by SARS Lab Escapes’. By then, he had started working with another armchair detective, Rodolphe de Maistre. Director of a Paris-based laboratory project that had previously studied and worked in China, de Maistre was busy debunking the idea that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a real “laboratory”. In fact, the WIV was home to many other study centers working on coronaviruses, but only one of them has the highest biosecurity protocol: BSL-4, in which researchers must wear full-body pressurized suits with independent oxygen. Others are designated BSL-3 and even BSL-2, about as safe as a dentist’s office.
After going online, Demaneuf and de Maistre began putting together a comprehensive list of research labs in China. When they posted their findings on Twitter, they were soon joined by other users around the world. Some were pioneering scientists at prestigious research institutes. Others were passionate about science. Together, they formed a group called DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated goal was to solve the riddle of the origin of COVID-19.
DRASTIC researchers often felt like they were alone in the desert, working on the biggest and most pressing mystery in the world. They weren’t alone. But investigators within the US government who asked similar questions operated in an environment as politicized and hostile to the opening of an investigation as any Twitter sound chamber. When Trump himself launched the laboratory escape hypothesis last April, his divisive disposition, his lack of credibility, his dark past, his far from latent xenophobia made things more challenging for those. who, more or less in good faith, sought the truth.
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