Scientists around the world are considering next steps to determine the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the American press is writing about an abandoned copper mine in the Chinese province of Yunnan, where in 2012 six miners contracted an unknown lung disease and three died. Scientists from Wuhan had to investigate.
Then scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were sent to the mine to identify new types of coronaviruses that target bats. The Wall Street Journal reports that one of them is the most genetically similar to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 among the pathogens currently known.
The case of the Tongguan mine in Mojiang province has become a springboard for growing calls for a thorough investigation to determine whether the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab as a result of accident or deliberate action, the Wall Street Journal assesses.
The Communist authorities in Beijing vehemently denied speculation about a possible leak from the laboratory. They also claim that the coronavirus is not necessarily from China, but may have come to Wuhan on imported food products. Chinese media publish any research indicating that the virus was previously present in other parts of the world.
After visiting the Chinese city of Wuhan, a team of international scientists led by the World Health Organization evaluated the theory of a laboratory leak as “highly unlikely”. On the other hand, he considered the most likely hypothesis about infection from a natural source – possibly bats – through other animals.
However, critics are raising doubts about whether Chinese authorities have given scientists visiting Wuhan enough space and access to key data. Speculation about the Tongguan Mine is fueled by the fact that local authorities, according to Western press reports, are blocking access to the site.
In October 2020, when a BBC team attempted to visit the mine, the road was blocked in several places, including an allegedly broken truck. The journalists were followed by plainclothes police and other officials. And the US Associated Press wrote two months later that scientists were also interested in the mine because “there may be clues to the origins of the coronavirus pandemic,” but that “it has become a black hole without information due to political sensitivity and secrecy.”
The Wall Street Journal claims that one of its reporters was able to reach the closed mine by mountain bike, but was later arrested by police, who questioned him for five hours and erased a picture of the mine entrance from his phone. Local residents said officials forbade them from talking to strangers about the mine.
According to data from Chinese scientific studies, citing “The Wall Street Journal”, in April 2012, six workers cleaning the shafts of bat excrement fell ill with an unknown disease resembling pneumonia. They had a fever and trouble breathing. By mid-August of that year, three of them had died, and researchers suspected the disease might be caused by coronaviruses.
Over the next year, scientists at the Wuhan Institute collected samples from 276 bats and identified a number of new coronaviruses, including one they named RaBtCoV/4991. In February 2020, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, a team led by Dr. Shi Jingli described WIV 96.2 percent of RaTG13 virus reported in the journal Nature. Genetically similar to SARS-Cov-2.
In the weeks that followed, Shi and her team explained that it was the virus itself, and that the name had been changed to reflect the type of bat and the sampling location. Later, the article in Nature was also updated with information about sick workers. And she pointed out that the samples taken from them were retested and it was found that they were not infected with the COVID-19 virus.
In May, Shi’s team published an article online that has yet to be scientifically verified, stating that only 77.6 percent of the coronaviruses in the mine were found in the mine. Similar to SARS-CoV-2, only one part of the genetic sequence was 97.2 percent similar. “While there is speculation that SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen as a result of RaTG13 leakage from the laboratory, scientific experiments do not support this,” he wrote.
Members of the WHO-sponsored expedition who visited the WIV laboratory in early 2021 also assessed that this was not possible. In their opinion, RaTG13 is genetically very far from SARS-CoV-2, and was never bred in a Chinese laboratory. “Of course we talked about it (…) As far as we know, there is only the sequence and not the virus,” said team member Peter Benbarek.
However, some scientists are still calling for testing both the hypothesis that the coronavirus is transmitted to humans from animals in a natural way and that of leakage in the laboratory. A group of scientists from the US, Canada, Switzerland and the UK recently appeared in the prestigious Science journal, calling for a transparent and independent moderated investigation into these two possibilities.
After the report from the first Wuhan expedition was published, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that all hypotheses will be considered further, and more research is also needed on the possibility of the coronavirus escaping from the laboratory. A decision on another possible research mission to China or another country has yet to be announced.
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