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Did Covid-19 virus leak from a Chinese lab? 18 top global scientists seek fresh answers

Representational image. Suspicion that the Covid-19 virus could have resulted from a laboratory leak in China refuses to die down as eminent scientists have demanded further investigations to determine the origin of the deadly disease (Pic: Courtesy Twitter/@TheGCSP)

Suspicion that the Covid-19 virus could have resulted from a laboratory leak in China refuses to die down, following a fresh demand by a group of eminent scientists for further investigations to determine the origin of the deadly disease.

The call for a further probe by 18 leading scientists follows the discovery of a Chinese military paper, which discusses the leading role of bioweapons in case a third world war was to be fought in the future. The publication of the research paper has raised legitimate doubts that China may have been developing bioweapons, which may have accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology –a stone’s throw from the wet market where the virus was apparently found in bats.

Covid-19 emerged in China in late 2019, triggering a global pandemic, which has killed 3.34 million people and cost the world trillions of dollars in lost incomes. The social consequences of the outbreak have been horrendous. 

Also Read: Should China's top researchers face sanctions on suspicion of developing bioweapons?

"More investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic," said the scientists, including Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, and Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, Reuters has reported.

"Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable," the scientists including David Relman, professor of microbiology at Stanford, said in a letter to the journal Science. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6543/694.1

The authors of the letter question the finding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the origins of the virus. They said that the WHO had not made a "balanced consideration" of the theory that it may have come from a laboratory incident.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely" as a cause. 

"We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spill overs seriously until we have sufficient data," the scientists said, adding that an intellectually rigorous and dispassionate investigation needed to take place, according to Reuters.

Also Read: China’s intent to study bioweapons reopens Covid origin controversy

The demands for a more detailed probe follow an investigative report published on May 7 by the Australian newspaper. The daily brought into global spotlight the existence of a Chinese military paper that discusses the potential of bioweapons based on SARS coronaviruses. Covid-19 is also a mutant of SARS coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. The findings by the Australian have reopened the debate about the origins of Covid-19, driving holes in the theory that a wet market in Wuhan, was the ground zero from where Covid-19 radiated across the globe.

The Chinese military paper titled The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons, points out that World War III, if it materialises, will be decided by new age biological weapons. They argue that the future of warfare is biological weapons, signalling that it was therefore necessary for China to develop these weapons of mass destruction. They predict that a “new era of genetic weapons” that can be “artificially manipulated into an emerging human ­disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed in a way never seen before,” is on the horizon.

The authenticity of the 263-page Chinese military paper, authored by 18 top experts, including those drawn from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has been established by digital forensics specialist Robert Potter. The US Department of Science got hold of the document May 2020, whose details will be published in an upcoming book, to be released in September, titled What Really Happened in Wuhan, authored by Sharri Markson.

The Chinese paper asserts that the new means of delivering bioweapons have been developed. “For example, the new-found ability to freeze-dry micro-organisms has made it possible to store biological agents and aeresolise them during attacks."

The Chinese have been responding furiously to any demands for an independent probe into the origins of Covid-19—a position that has started to seriously impact geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region.  Last week, China suspended an economic dialogue with Australia, stepping up a pressure against Canberra, which began after Australia demanded a probe on Covid-19. 

Relations between the two countries have plummeted to a new low after China blocked imports of Australian coal, wheat and other goods over the past year. Chinese state media has also threatened Australia with missile strikes if it bonds with Taiwan.

In view of the growing threat from China, the Biden administration has reinforced its support for Australia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Australian counterpart Marise Payne on Thursday that the U.S. “will not leave Australia alone on the field — or maybe I should say ‘alone on the pitch’ — in the face of economic coercion by China. That's what allies do."