The debate about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has become toxic. There is still no consensus as to whether this new disease resulted from the passing of a bat coronavirus naturally to humans or was the result of a lab leak, whether of a natural or engineered bat coronavirus.
For the moment there is not enough data to solve the riddle. But one thing is certain: the debate has shed alarming new light on the dangers of a line of scientific enquiry called Gain of Function research that seeks to increase the transmissibility or pathogenicity of animal viruses to infect humans.
The Covid-19 origins saga conjures up shades of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and takes me back to the origins of its virus, HIV-1.
Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, like the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral spillovers
In the last years of the millennium we heard rumours it was made by the KGB, only to be countered by claims the CIA was behind it.
The reality was that in the early 1980s, when the HIV-1 virus burst upon the world, humankind didn’t have the technology to design such a disease.
It took more than a decade before we were able to paint the broad brushstrokes of the origins of AIDS. We now know HIV-1 jumped over from chimpanzees some time in the middle of the 20th Century. There is a huge repertoire of lookalike viruses in African monkeys.
Fast-forward to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – in Wuhan some time in late 2019.
Given its brutal impact around the world, it’s legitimate to ask where it came from. Indeed, we would be bananas not to. The simplest answer is that SARS-CoV-2 came from an animal, ultimately from a bat. But the key issue is: where is its closest relative, the brother or sister virus, not the distant cousin? If we knew that, you would not be reading this piece.
Given its brutal impact around the world, it’s legitimate to ask where Covid came from
The difference between the early days of HIV science and today is the vertiginous firepower virologists now have due to phenomenal advances in science and technology.
Genomes can be synthesized in a test tube from their genetic blueprints. We can cut and paste DNA of all sizes, whole genetic paragraphs, sentences and even individual words just like writing an email. We have spelling correctors too.
Virologists like me have been doing this since the 1980s with ever increasing ease.
In 2012, a heated debate erupted when it was discovered a small number of influenza virologists were engineering bird flu viruses of relatively little danger to humans to see if they could be mutated into viruses with the potential to unleash a pandemic.
It sounds like something from a science-fiction film, so why on earth were they doing this? Let me explain.
Pandemics are rare and can be devastating, like the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. But far more common are so-called viral spillovers.
Chicken flu viruses in particular can spill over into humans, usually poultry-handlers. Infection can be lethal – sometimes six out of ten victims will die, which is frightening.
Flu researchers were afraid such viruses might mutate one day and spark a pandemic. So they wanted to know what combination of mutations could make a spillover virus easily transmissible between humans by the respiratory route.
After the use of deliberate gene engineering, they discovered that only a handful of mutations were necessary.
This is not surprising if you understand flu viruses. But the real problem is the fact that scientists could now create new, highly pathogenic viruses not found in nature through Gain of Function work.