No lab had a virus close enough to Covid to cause a pandemic, claims a zoologist who funded the research in Wuhan

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No lab in the world contained a virus close enough to Covid-19 that it could be manipulated to create the pandemic strain, said the British zoologist, whose company funded Wuhan researchers.

Peter Daszak, the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, responded to claims that scientists had dismissed the lab leak theory because they didn’t want to stop conducting dangerous “gain-of-function” experiments to increase the infectivity of viruses.

The pandemic began in the city of Wuhan, near where scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) imported bat coronaviruses for experiments.

Last week, Anton van der Merwe, a professor of molecular immunology at Oxford University, warned that scientists involved in work similar to WIV’s were worried such tests would be banned again.

But in a letter to the Telegraph refuting the claim, Mr Daszak said: “He (Prof. Van der Merwe) states that these experiments were carried out in Wuhan on SARS-CoV-2-like viruses.

“That’s wrong. Experiments at the WIV involved bat coronaviruses related to the original SARS-CoV, not SARS-CoV-2, and there is no evidence that any laboratory in the world had a virus that caused SARS- CoV-2 is genetically close enough that it could be manipulated to become this virus.”

However, critics pointed out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has admitted to harboring a bat coronavirus called RaTG13, which has a 96.9 percent similarity to Covid-19.

Viscount Ridley, co-author of Viral: the search for the origin of Covid-19, said it just needed the addition of a new spike protein, some gene changes, the inclusion of a furin cleavage site to increase infectivity, and a few more labs Evolution to create the virus.

In response, Mr Daszak said: “There’s really no way that RaTG13 could have anything to do with SARS-CoV-2 – the spike protein and backbone sequence of the virus are too genetically different to make it possible for this one to spread.” Virus could have evolved rapidly into SARS-CoV-2 or genetically manipulated to become SARS-CoV-2.”

Other experts said that Covid-19 could also be a consensus sequence – essentially a mishmash of other viruses.

In a leaked 2018 grant application from EcoHealth Alliance and WIV, researchers proposed synthesizing viral genomes to create a consensus sequence based on viruses that are 95 percent identical.

The proposal, which was rejected by US military research agency DARPA because it “could have endangered local communities,” also suggested inserting human-specific furin cleavage sites into Sars like coronaviruses – which could have made them highly contagious to humans.

dr Monali Rahalkar, a microbiology scientist at India’s Agharkar Research Institute, said the changes would have been possible with the available viruses.

“A consensus sequence can be created if they have similar viruses or use other bioinformatics tools,” she said.

In his letter, Mr Daszak claimed that the experiments conducted by WIV would not count as “gain-of-function” because the bat coronaviruses involved had never infected humans.

“The SARS-related research done with NIH funding before the pandemic at the Wuhan Institute of Virology only looked at bat coronaviruses, which had never been shown to infect humans, let alone morbidity and/or cause human mortality, and therefore by definition it was not gain-of-function research,” he said.

He added: “Professor van der Merwe also suggests that identifying potentially dangerous organisms in the wild is unlikely to help prevent pandemics.

“A one-health strategy for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response begins with intelligent surveillance to identify potential transmission routes and take action to control the risks of zoonotic spread.

“Certainly these risks justify the type of research that has been supported by the US.”

However, Prof Van der Merwe described Mr Daszak’s response as “petty” and a clear conflict of interest.

“The exact definition of reinforcement from functional experiments varies,” he said, “The fact that my definition differs from the definition in a US regulation is not relevant.

“He’s criticizing something I didn’t write. I argued that experiments trying to enable a virus to better infect human cells (or “humanized” mice) are unlikely to help prevent a future pandemic.”

Mr Daszak was instrumental in organizing a letter published in The Lancet early in the pandemic that effectively ended the scientific debate over whether the coronavirus had been manipulated or had leaked from the laboratory.

Emails have since come to light showing that Mr Daszak chose not to sign the letter himself, lest it fall back on the collaboration between EcoHealth, WIV and other scientists involved in bat coronavirus if he ” selfish” appears.

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