Exclusive: COVID-19 ‘cannot be man-made,’ China’s renowned genetics scientist calls on WHO to seek truth with science
Photo: Wu Chung-I, a professor from the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yat-sen University and director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Even as scientists from the world have been calling for a stop to politicizing the probe on the COVID-19 origins, some countries, especially the US, continue to hype the “lab leak” theory and exert pressure on the WHO for a second round of investigations in China. In an exclusive interview, China’s renowned scientist in evolutionary biology and genetics Wu Chung-I said that the virus can only come from nature and cannot be man-made.
Wu, a professor from the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong Province and director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, stressed the main reason why the global pandemic is out of control is that the voices of scientists are too weak; otherwise, had the global response been scientific and positive, the COVID-19 outbreak would have ended in May 2020.
Describing the world as “irrational,” Wu called on the World Health Organization (WHO) and international scientists to seek truth with the spirit of science.
WHO. Photo: VCG
On July 22, Chinese health officials said at a press conference that China will not accept WHO’s proposal on a second phase study on COVID-19 origins in China, saying that the proposal lacked respect for common sense and is arrogant to science. They stressed that the next stage of the study should be carried out in more countries and places around the world on the basis of wide consultations among member states, not in places that have already inspected.
Yuan Zhiming, director of China’s National Biosafety Laboratory and professor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, also slammed the “lab leak” theory at the conference, stressing that the institute has never “contacted, preserved, designed, made or leaked the coronavirus.”
Such a firm, specific response from China came after the US kept throwing mud at China by hyping the “lab leak” theory and US President Joe Biden even demanded US intelligence agencies confirm in 90 days if the coronavirus emerged from a laboratory, despite the WHO-China joint report on the probe of virus origins has declared that a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be “extremely unlikely” as the three labs in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high biosafety level facilities that were well-managed.
According to Wu, compared to SARS-CoV of 2003, SARS-CoV-2 is extremely well adapted to human populations and its shift in adaptability from the animal host to humans must have been even more extensive. Following the blind watchmaker argument, such a shift in adaptability can only happen prior to the onset of the current pandemic and with the aid of a step-by-step selection. In this view, SARS-CoV-2 could not have possibly evolved in an animal market in a big city and even less likely in a lab.
Through the lens. Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
One of the main ideas that some people have when promoting the “man-made” conspiracy and “lab leak” theory is that how could a virus as perfectly adapted to the human body as novel coronavirus come from the “blind” nature. “It was a terrible throwback in scientific thought — a throwback to the thinking of a priest more than 200 years ago,” Wu said.
Wu explained that the novel coronavirus, as a “perfect” virus, must be the product of natural evolution because even the best human scientists can’t “make” a perfect virus adapted to human beings.
“It is like the most skilled and experienced mobile phone manufacturers, it is impossible for them to design the world’s most popular mobile phone at one time. The ‘perfect’ product must be based on market testing and repeated polishing,” Wu said.
Some existing studies have also proven this point. For example, mice originally could not be infected with the novel coronavirus, but scientists used the artificial selection method to find novel coronavirus strains that can infect mice. However, even so, the artificially selected strains did not cause a large outbreak in the mice population.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the viruses must have undergone repeated inter-infections in both wild animals and humans. In the process, the viruses gradually accumulated mutations that could be adapted to humans. In the process of invading people, the virus repeatedly failed and left a “trace” until it evolved into the state that it is today: extremely adapted to spread among people, Wu said.
“If any country wants to insist on the lab-origin hypothesis, they should work in a lab to create a new viral strain that can wipe out the mosquitoes. If they cannot get it done in three years, they all go to jail,” Wu said.
China has submitted phase-II COVID-19 origins-tracing recommendations to the WHO, believing the study should be based on the joint study and should be carried out in many more places around the world.
Every search has to start with a model, much like a hunt for a crime suspect needs a profile of the suspect such as height, age, physique, and so on. Everybody is crying for a search but nobody has said what we should be looking for. In this view, Wu suggested the WHO should define what the origins mean first before it decides where to go.
“In our model, we have a fairly specific idea where to search for the origins. It would be a place with an abundance of bats, a low density of local humans, and frequent contacts between humans and bats, especially where bats are an important part of the local cuisine,” Wu said.
Recently, 55 countries have submitted letters to the WHO Director-General concerning the COVID-19 origins study, jointly opposing the politicization of the issue. As of Wednesday, over 15 million netizens signed an online joint letter demanding the WHO investigate the US, as people continue to suspect the link between Fort Detrick and the unexplained respiratory disease outbreaks, and question why the origins study can’t be conducted in the US just as in China.
A member of the Frederick Police Department Special Response Team peers out of a minivan before the team entered Fort Detrick on April 6. Photo: VCG
Noting it is an open secret that some countries are poisoning the probe on the virus origins, Wu stressed that it is a scientific question and should be treated as a scientific one.
“Is it possible for someone who knows nothing about physics to say something sensible about the origin of the universe?” Wu asked.