While speculation over the starting point of COVID-19 is rampant, it is more likely to have infected humans through natural channels than from a “hot zone” lab located in Wuhan, China, according to a former top figure in the United States’ biodefense programs.
“In my own opinion, it’s most likely that somehow humans were infected by this virus either directly with exposure to bats or through some intermediary host, some other animal, because that’s how these spillover events have occurred in the past,” said Mark Kortepeter, the former deputy director of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“Now, if you talk about the lab, it’s possible they were working on a virus found in nature and somehow somebody got exposed in the lab and that’s how this thing started,” Dr. Kortepeter said, referring to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which many people have blamed for the introduction of the novel coronavirus that is blamed for more than 450,000 deaths worldwide.
Neither the speed of COVID-19’s rampage nor its lethality offers any proof it broke free of a laboratory environment, and it’s nearly impossible to say whether slight mutations in a virus have occurred naturally or were human-made, Dr. Kortepeter said.
“Just because it’s more efficient spreading through the population doesn’t mean it’s been weaponized,” he said.
The U.S. intelligence community is currently investigating the origins of novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19, which causes a respiratory disease that so far has been blamed for the deaths of almost 120,000 Americans.
Still, troubling signs abound in Wuhan, said Dr. Kortepeter, whose new book “Inside the Hot Zone” details his work on the frontlines of Army’s biodefense laboratories headquartered at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
For one, the Wuhan Institute previously published work on “gain of function,” a scientific process in which a virus is made more effective. That suggests a degree of biological weapons research there, and could also produce what is known as a “hotter” strain of the coronavirus, Dr. Kortepeter said.
“That makes things a little more suspicious,” he said. “It’s not proof, though, but if they had malintent, I’m not sure they would publish that work.”
The smoking gun — finding an identical genetic strain of coronavirus that was in the lab before the outbreak — likely will never be found, he said, but posing the questions isn’t unreasonable.
The Wuhan Institute has “Biosafety Level 4” labs where scientists in hazmat suits tinker with the world’s most lethal pathogens. While coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as Ebola or smallpox, it could also wind up in Level 4 simply because so little is known about it.
Yet while such sophisticated labs are rare, they offer no sure link to the coronavirus’ still anonymous “patient zero” because, given the extraordinary level of caution associated with work in a Biosafety Level 4 unit, it is much more likely that if COVID-19 jumped into the population from a lab, it did so from a Level 2 or Level 3 facility, Dr. Kortepeter said.
Finally, no one knows exactly who might have had access.
“So there are two scenarios in the lab,” he said. “Either someone got exposed to a natural origin virus or it was an exposure to a manipulated virus. My own opinion is it’s more likely in the natural environment, not in the lab, but as a biodefense guy and an Army guy, I also know that there are some bad actors out there trying to do things out there for nefarious intent.”
As a civilian, Dr. Kortepeter is director of a research group associated with the University of Nebraska that set up the National Quarantine Unit in Omaha that treated Ebola patients in 2014. The lab also treated the first 13 Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 who caught it aboard a cruise ship in Asia.
The national response to COVID-19 in the U.S. has been frustrated by an initial lack of coordination and periodic waves of misinformation, he said.
A recently retracted story in The Lancet, the influential British medical periodical, that claimed hydroxychloroquine was detrimental to coronavirus patients is a case in point.
“That sort of thing really haunts us in the scientific community. We don’t need to be adding fuel to the fire,” he said. “I don’t know the answer, scientifically, if there are inserts to the virus genome that look suspicious, but everything has been politicized which just complicates it. Something comes out and Twitter just pounces on it.”
China’s initial reluctance to either notify the world of COVID-19’s properties or allow outside virology teams to Wuhan only fueled suspicions that China was responsible for the outbreak.
But some reluctance at first is perhaps understandable, Dr. Kortepeter said, likening China’s reaction to what America’s may have been if scientists descended on the U.S. when Lyme disease was first identified in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975.
Despite setbacks and a lack of reliable testing, Dr. Kortepeter said there is some promise on the pharmacological front. While he entertained skepticism about hydroxychloroquine from the outset, he is now hopeful about a cocktail of Remdesivir, a drug that showed some promise with Ebola, and an anti-inflammatory drug.
“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s a glimmer of hope,” he said.
Going forward, a “more surgical, focused response,” is a better way to cope with outbreaks than the sweeping shutdowns ordered around the world. It is difficult to say today whether the U.S. is seeing a second wave of the virus or merely upticks in some states that were spared widespread infections in March and April.
“In general, one of the problems is we’ve been getting mixed messages on the response from all levels of the government. We’re learning as we go, but I would say we still don’t have unity of effort across the country, I think that’s one thing that’s hurt us all along. I think we’re doing better in terms of scientific innovation.”
Humanity’s best hope in the short term is that COVID-19 remains a largely stable virus. It is far easier to develop lifetime vaccines for such maladies. Some viruses get sloppy as they furiously reproduce which makes them more resistant to vaccines and treatment.
“It depends on the virus,” he said. “This appears to have a more stable genetic component and that’s a good thing. It will give us a good chance of developing a vaccine that protects us for a longer period of time.”
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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