[Attention: the Russian article has been translated with Google. Some names, terms and words are linked with a website or dictionary by Admin.]
Sergey Netesov: If it is confirmed that the new coronavirus appeared as a result of a laboratory leak, this will make you think about the ban on gain-of-function research.
More than a year has passed since the world learned about the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. From the very beginning, professionals denied the possibility of its artificial origin. However, new data has now emerged. The question of a laboratory leak of the virus, which had previously seemed impossible, came to the fore. The fact that the suspicions are serious is evidenced by the creation of a special WHO commission to clarify all the circumstances. Where did the doubts come from? I asked the head of the laboratory of biotechnology and virology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Novosibirsk State University, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences: Sergey Netesov.
1. Sergey Viktorovich, recently there have been several new assumptions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. For example, the hypothesis that protozoa were the intermediate host on the way to humans for the coronavirus …
— I do not take such reasoning seriously.
2. Protozoa can be intermediate hosts for some microorganisms.
— It happens to bacteria. But not with viruses – they are much more specific to the host than bacteria.
3. But a natural analogue of SARS-CoV-2 was never found in animals …
— Back in February 2020, a short message was published, followed by several articles stating that one of the progenitors of the new coronavirus, quite close, was found. And not one, but two or three. Their homology with the SARS-CoV-2 genome is more than 96 percent. Let me remind you that an almost 100% analogue was found for the SARS virus in animals, but not immediately. It’s another matter now: they cannot find a closer isolate or a second component with which the bat virus recombined. Because SARS-Cov-2, which infects humans, appears to be recombinant. The second recombinant partner is not found. It seems to have been found on the pangolins. However, the problem is that pangolins in China are practically not found with bats. Therefore, additional hypotheses arose. Recently WIV, Wuhan Institute of Virology, was visited by a special commission of the World Health Organization. The bottom line is that this center is doing research on the verge of a foul. We are talking about the activities of the laboratory, which is headed by Shi Zhengli – she was nicknamed “bat woman” because she became famous for the study of viruses in bats.
4. WHO suspected the artificial origin of the virus? At the very beginning of the pandemic, you considered this unlikely.
— And I, and other virologists did not know a lot then. We judged from the English-language publications of the Wuhan Institute. But it turned out that they also published a number of articles in Chinese. Now these articles have surfaced, they began to be carefully studied, and many people are now thinking about it more seriously. We used to know that the recombinant virus that was made in Wuhan in 2015 and about which there is a publication in Nature has nothing to do with the current coronavirus. It was made on the basis of the old SARS coronavirus. And, besides, very simple genetic engineering methods were used to create it, leaving traces. By its structure, knowledgeable people immediately see – made in the laboratory. Now it turned out that there were also articles from 2018 and 2019 in Chinese. It can be seen from them that Chinese researchers not only got much closer to the new coronavirus than we thought, but also used a different genetic engineering technology[genetic engineering, also called genetic modification or genetic manipulation, Admin]. One that potentially leaves no trace. The line of research they have chosen is called gain-of-function research, or imitation of the natural evolution of pathogens[an organism that can create disease, Admin.]
5. Can we assume that there was an accidental leak from the laboratory?
— The further, the more suspicions about an accidental leak. Professionals have many questions about this. Recently, Science posted a note by Shi Zhengli that appeared to be poorly reviewed. In a couple of moments there are excuses in it that are not very serious. Not serious for a researcher like her. The problem is that the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducted jointly with the Americans. Reagents, equipment, materials were also purchased with American funds. All this, with the permission of the NIH, the US National Institutes of Health, was delivered to China.
6. Does this mean that some controversial studies were brought to China at one time?
— These were studies that could be the subject of public discussion outside of China. It should be noted that in the US, a moratorium was imposed on gain-of-function research for almost four years. This was not a general moratorium, but a ban on NIH funding for this research. It was removed in 2017. I believe that this was done in vain. After all, the ban was not in vain. There are two laboratories in the world that at one time recreated the virus of the famous “Spanish flu”, the 1918 flu. This was done in the Netherlands and the USA, and in laboratories with a non-maximum degree of protection. The fact that there was no leakage from these laboratories at that time, I consider a lucky coincidence. The attention of professionals around the world was riveted to the safety of these laboratories, and their leaders did not perform such tricks anymore. But they were replaced by the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the American University of North Carolina. A non-dangerous part of the research was carried out in the United States, and the dangerous part with the “revival” of the recombinant virus – in China.
7: Why did they decide to continue the research? Monetary pressure?
— Rather, the desire of young, passionate, enterprising researchers to make a name for themselves in a promising field as soon as possible. Several elderly Nobel laureates supported them.
8. If it turns out that the virus is man-made, will this force us to revise the safety standards of laboratory research in different countries?
— The man-made virus still needs to be proven, even if this was the case. By the way, the candidacies of some members of the WHO commission raise questions. For example, British zoologist Peter Dashak has long collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, studying bat viruses. And somehow it turns out so against his will that now he is investigating his own activities as part of the WHO commission.
But even if it cannot be proven that the virus is man-made, biosafety and microbiological regulations will be tightened anyway. Perhaps there will be a ban on gain-of-function research. By the way, China has passed a new, much stricter biosecurity law. Do you know when they took it? At the end of 2020. When I recently got my hands on a translation of this law, I automatically began to think that this was not an accidental coincidence.
9. Can we assume that there was a serious incident that forced the Chinese to urgently change safety standards?
— Now the professionals in the WHO commission in China are trying to figure it out.
From 2003 to 2014 Alla Astakhova led the topics of health care and science in «Ито́ги»: “Itogi” is a Russian socio-political weekly (magazine) that existed between 1996–2014. For a long time it was considered one of the most influential Russian journals of social and political orientation. Alla Astakhova is member of the Union of Journalists of Russia. Has professional awards and prizes. Winner of the Fourth All-Russian Competition “Science for Society – 2005” in the nomination “Best Popular Science Article” for the article “Tablets from a Computer”. Leads a channel on Youtube: “Alla Astakhova, medical journalist“.