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Wait, Natural Bat-Virus Spillover to Humans ‘Is Relatively Rare’?

A bat ecologist measures a bat at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) in Los Banos, Philippines, February 19, 2021. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

On the menu today: A Wuhan Institute of Virology study from 2018 examined the villagers who lived closest to the coronavirus-carrying bats in Yunnan Province and concluded that natural “spillover” from bats directly to humans is “relatively rare”; a new article and book lay out how Chinese researchers inadvertently admitted they had a supply of mice with “humanized lungs” lying around before the COVID-19 pandemic started; and a think tank offers a list of options to rebuke China and prevent the next pandemic.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018: Natural Bat-Virus Spillover ‘Is Relatively Rare’

In 2015, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology traveled to southern Yunnan Province in China to get a sense of how much natural viral infection of human beings occurred among those living closest to the virus-shedding horseshoe bats in the province. The astounding part, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is not what they found; it’s what they didn’t find.

The study, published three years later, described its methodology as “perform[ing] serological surveillance on people who live in close proximity to caves where bats that carry diverse SARSr-CoVs roost.”

Researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been collecting samples from bats in Yanzi and Shitou caves since 2011 and determined that the caves “are inhabited by large numbers of bats including Rhinolophus spp., a major reservoir of SARSr-CoVs.” These caves are a four-hour drive’s distance away from the copper mineshaft in Tongguan, Mojiang, Yunnan Province, China, where six miners grew sick with COVID-19-like symptoms in April 2012. This is a study of the same species of bat, within the same province, but a considerable distance away.

The researchers noted in their study that the region was unaffected by the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak, and none of the 218 test subjects had any signs of a viral infection during testing. Out of the 218 test subjects, the sample split 63 percent female, 37 percent male, and the median age was 48. Eighty-three percent of the test subjects were farmers, 8.7 percent were students, and the rest were not identified by profession. There was good reason to think some had been in close contact with bats or other animals that could have caught a virus from a bat: “Most (81.2 percent) kept or owned livestock or pets, and the majority (97.2 percent) had a history of exposure to or contact with livestock or wild animals. Importantly, 20 (9.1 percent) participants witnessed bats flying close to their houses, and one had handled a bat corpse.”

If any population on earth was going to have a lot of antibodies in its blood, as lingering evidence of past run-ins with bat coronaviruses, these villagers were probably the best bet.

And yet, out of 218 people, the WIV researchers found just six samples that indicated past exposure to the kind of coronavirus likely to have originated in a bat. The researchers concluded that, “The 2.7 percent seropositivity for the high-risk group of residents living in close proximity to bat colonies suggests that spillover is a relatively rare event, however this depends on how long antibodies persist in people, since other individuals may have been exposed and antibodies waned. During questioning, none of the 6 seropositive subjects could recall any clinical symptoms in the past 12 months, suggesting that their bat SARSr-CoV infection either occurred before the time of sampling, or that infections were subclinical or caused only mild symptoms.”

As part of the experiment, the WIV researchers also used a control group, collecting “240 serum samples from random blood donors in 2015 in Wuhan, Hubei Province more than 1000 km away from Jinning and where inhabitants have a much lower likelihood of contact with bats due to its urban setting. . . . None of the donors had knowledge of prior SARS infection or known contact with SARS patients.” The Wuhan residents didn’t test positive for the bat coronaviruses.

(Before we go any further, note that the Wuhan Institute of Virology itself is declaring that residents of the city of Wuhan have a much lower likelihood of contact with bats, and that the city is well beyond the natural habitat of the horseshoe bats.)

In other words, the Wuhan Institute of Virology studied the people living closest to the kinds of bats carrying coronaviruses — and in one case, someone who picked up a dead bat! — and either didn’t get infected at all, or they got infected with a virus that offered minimally dangerous health effects. It’s likely these villagers had been living near and coming in contact with bats for generations — and obviously, they had no memories of themselves or their parents or grandparents experiencing anything like COVID-19.

From this, the Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers determined “spillover is a relatively rare event.” And we shouldn’t be that surprised, as viruses that develop in the bodies of bats are optimized to infect bats, not human beings. While bats and human beings are both mammals, their lungs aren’t genetically identical.

So, What Made SARS-CoV-2 So Different?

In that spectacular Vanity Fair article by Katherine Eban, she lays out how a May 2020 Chinese research paper referring to mice who had been genetically altered to have lungs more similar to those of human beings may represent an inadvertent admission of secret research:

As the NSC tracked these disparate clues, U.S. government virologists advising them flagged one study first submitted in April 2020. Eleven of its 23 coauthors worked for the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, the Chinese army’s medical research institute. Using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, the researchers had engineered mice with humanized lungs, then studied their susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. As the NSC officials worked backward from the date of publication to establish a timeline for the study, it became clear that the mice had been engineered sometime in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic even started. The NSC officials were left wondering: Had the Chinese military been running viruses through humanized mouse models, to see which might be infectious to humans?

You can find that study, published in the scientific journal Nature, here. Two key passages:

“Specific-pathogen-free male and female wild-type (n = 15) or hACE2 (n = 19) mice of 6–11 months of age were inoculated intranasally with SARS-CoV-2 strain HB-01 at a dosage of 105 50% tissue culture infectious dose (TCID50) per 50 μl inoculum volume per mouse, after the mice were intraperitoneally anaesthetized using 2.5% avertin; mock-treated hACE2 mice (n = 15) were used as control.”

. . . For the mouse experiments, specific-pathogen-free, 6–11-month-old male and female hACE2 mice were obtained from the Institute of Laboratory Animal Science, Peking Union Medical College. Transgenic mice were generated by microinjection of the mouse Ace2 promoter driving the human ACE2 coding sequence into the pronuclei of fertilized ova from ICR mice, and then human ACE2 integrated was identified by PCR as previous described; the human ACE2 mainly expressed in the lungs, heart, kidneys and intestines of transgenic mice.”

A study published in the first week of May 2020 indicates experiments conducted no later than April 2020. An eleven-month-old mouse used in a study conducted in April 2020, that had human a ACE2 coding sequence injected into the ova, meant that ova had been injected with the genetic sequences no later than May 2019 — months before anyone had ever heard of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. So, why did Chinese research scientists engineer a supply of mice with “humanized” lungs before the pandemic broke?

As Josh Rogin writes in Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century:

After consultations with experts, some U.S. officials came to believe that this Beijing lab was likely conducting coronavirus experiments on mice fitted with ACE2 receptors well before the coronavirus outbreak — research they hadn’t disclosed and continued to not admit to. That, by itself, did not help to explain how SARS-CoV-2 originated. But it did make clear to U.S. officials that there was a lot of risky coronavirus experiments going on in Chinese labs that the rest of the world was simply not aware of. “This was just a peek under a curtain of an entire galaxy of activity, including labs in Beijing and Wuhan playing around with coronaviruses in ACE2 mice in unsafe labs,” the senior administration official said. “It suggests we’re getting a peek at a body of activity that isn’t understood in the West or even has precedent here.”

The Beijing study further reinforced the suspicions of many people inside the U.S. government that the pandemic resulted in part due to the actions of humans, specifically Chinese researchers. The virus itself may not have been engineered, but the animal hosts that were being used to test it were engineered, which could explain how the virus might have evolved over a short period of time from something found in nature to something so deadly to humans that it would cause the worst pandemic in modern history.

Advocates of the zoonotic-origin theory have emphasized that the virus likely needed an intermediary species to become so thoroughly effective at infecting human beings. If Chinese labs had a supply of mice with humanized lungs, that would be the kind of intermediary species that could take a virus optimized for infecting bats and help it transform itself into a virus better suited for infecting human beings.

Remember, we haven’t found SARS-CoV-2 in any animals in nature yet. If SARS-CoV-2 is a mutation of a naturally occurring virus that was altered within the system of a mouse that had been genetically altered to have lungs more similar to human beings . . . we’re not going to find SARS-CoV-2 in any animals in nature. Because, in that scenario, the virus only underwent that globally consequential transformation within a laboratory mouse whose lungs were genetically engineered to function like a human being’s.

How to Counter China for Unleashing the Pandemic

At the U.S. State Department, David Asher spearheaded a task force for the office of Secretary Mike Pompeo looking into the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the Chinese government in its development. Now, Asher and four of his colleagues at Hudson Institute have just published a four-step proposal on how to respond to Beijing’s consistent hostility to international cooperation and transparency:

  1. Cease funding for dangerous research: The Biden administration should completely reinstate the Obama administration’s ban on dangerous gain-of-function research, which was never sufficiently enforced in cases involving Chinese government labs.
  2. Enforce treaty compliance: The secretary of state should address China’s violations of the International Health Regulations, especially its failure to respond to consultations and to share data among treaty members — a fundamental requirement. Beijing’s military programs need to be verified as complying with the peaceful purposes clause of the Biological Weapons Convention.
  3. Sanctions: The secretary of the treasury and the secretary of state should begin investigating formal sanctions against the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and their networks of commercial entities for engaging in undeclared, classified biological weapons research and development for the Chinese military, in possible violation of US Presidential Executive Order 13382 on WMD proliferation.
  4. Responsible pandemic preparedness: Rather than continuing to fund EcoHealth Alliance’s failed programs to try to predict the next pandemic, the administration should adopt a better strategy, such as establishing a public-private partnership to develop and deploy a global network of bio-threat detection sensors, possibly centered around the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub and IDseq Initiative. China would be expected to be a founding plank holder for this international bio-sensing network, as this initiative’s purpose is to share data akin to weather prediction and seismology joint detection, prediction, and coordination. At least we would get the benefit of much earlier warnings of natural or manmade disease outbreaks from this epidemiological “open skies” initiative.

This past weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Axios that China “has to” be more open about the origin of the virus and share more information. He was not overflowing with details about how that goal would be achieved, other than to emphasize that cooperating more “is in China’s interest, too.”

ADDENDUM: Our webathon continues, and Rich illuminates that your generous support helps us do groundbreaking journalism — such as Charlie Cooke’s irrefutable, comprehensive exposé of Rebekah Jones, the serial fabulist and peddler of preposterous conspiracy theories who was celebrated by a far-too-credulous national and Florida media as a whistleblower.

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