I asked about the origins of the outbreak at a news conference with a Center for Disease Control representative at the now shuttered National Press Club on Feb. 11. I asked if it was a complete coincidence that the pandemic started in Wuhan, which seems a hub of Chinese biowarfare capacity -- with the only declared BSL4 (biosafety level 4 laboratory, which deals with the most deadly pathogens) while the bat caves (in Yunnan province) some have cited as the relevant source of bats are over 1,000 miles from Wuhan. I noted that controversial gain-of-function lab work results in more deadly pathogens (like making them airborne), and that major labs, including in the U.S., have had accidents. The CDC's Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat replied that based on the information she has seen, the virus was of "zoonotic origin." She also stated regarding gain-of-function lab work that it's important to "protect researchers and their laboratory workers as well as the community around them and that we use science for the benefit of people."
I followed up, asking if an alleged natural origin didn't preclude it coming out of a lab, since a lab could have acquired a bat virus and been working on it. Schuchat replied to the assembled journalists that "it is very common for rumors to emerge that can take on life of their own," but didn't answer the question. She noted that in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, some pointed to nearby labs as the possible cause, claiming this "was a key rumor that had to be overcome in order to help control the outbreak." And she reiterated: "So based on everything that I know right now, I can tell you the circumstances of the origin really look like animals to human. But your, your question, I heard."
But there's no rumor. It’s a fact: Labs work with dangerous pathogens. U.S. and China have such dual use biowarfare/biodefense programs. China has major facilities at Wuhan. There are leaks from labs. (See Preventing a Biological Arms Race, MIT Press, 1990, edited by Susan Wright -- see (partial) review in Journal of International Law (10/92).)
Husseini: Obviously the main concern is how to stop the virus and deaths and so on. But I think that we should look into the origins of this. Is it the CDCs contention that there's absolutely no relation to the BSL4 lab in Wuhan? It's my understanding this is the only place in China with a BSL4 lab. We in the United States have I think two dozen or so and there have been problems and incidents. Some of them have been shut down out of concerns of leakage of potential pathogens. And it's an ethical struggle in the United States about gain of function research. That is, research that actually attempts to make pathogens more lethal. China is a very opaque society [with a] totalitarian regime. We have no idea, or I don't know, you tell me: Do you have any idea of what kind of research could potentially be done? I'm not contending that this was intentional in any way. I'm just asking is it a complete coincidence that this outbreak happened in the one city in China with a BSL4 lab and shouldn't we be having at least some of the discussion about the ethics of some of the research that happens here? Thank you.
Schuchat: Thank you for those comments. Based on everything that I know about what is going on with this outbreak and the research that's being conducted, well as the genomic sequences that have been posted and the comparison with animals strains, the pattern that we're seeing is quite consistent with emergence from animal to human acquisition and adaptability or mutations that permit the virus to be easily spread between people. There's some emerging research about, you know, the virus itself is related to bat viruses, that's what the SARS virus and the MERS virus. But there was an intriguing report about pangolin sequencing -- an animal that is apparently a large part of the wildlife trade around the world, with 99 percent similarity. But what our scientists tell us is you actually need more like 99.9 percent similarity for us to understand origin. The animal origins and the circumstances of the emergence of this virus are really important to understand and it's one of the key questions that the global community wants to look into.
Schuchat: In terms of the question about gain of function research and laboratory issues. Very important for us as a scientific community to have practices that protect researchers and their laboratory workers as well as the community around them and that we use science for the benefit of people. So I am closely involved in this response and everything that I've seen so far is very consistent with the animal to human spread that we've seen other zoonotic origin.
Husseini: May I follow up on that -- just -- I mean, the two things don't necessarily preclude each other. That is, the Chinese lab could well have acquired the bat [virus]. It's one or two thousand miles away -- the caves where the bats are [from] that are allegedly the cause. So wouldn't -- the two things aren't mutually exclusive, are they?
Schuchat: Yeah, let me leave a comment. Information is critical and having the very best information available to those who -- to everyone, to be able to protect themselves, their families, their communities is essential. In the midst of new infections, it is very common for rumors to emerge that can take on life of their own. So as you mentioned, a laboratory in the center of what else is happening in that province -- I'm reminded of concerns we heard when I was in Sierra Leone in 2014 with the Ebola response. There was a concern that there was a hemorrhagic virus research center in Sierra Leone, and maybe that's from the virus had come from. It was a key rumor that had to be overcome in order to help control the outbreak. So based on everything that I know right now, I can tell you the circumstances of the origin really look like animals to human. But your, your question, I heard.