The China-Carolina virus?  Part One

COLUMBIA, Mo 5/27/21 (Feature) -- US President Joe Biden wants answers about the origins of Covid, the virus behind the biggest American pandemic since the 1918 flu, and a bigger menace worldwide.

Biden has tasked US intelligence agencies with a job that should have been done a year ago, and by lots of different investigators, including journalists:  find out if Covid has natural -- or unnatural -- origins.
A theory dismissed for over a year -- that Covid escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, China -- is not only sounding more credible, but may have troubling American counterparts, including US funding and research leadership.

Covid Conspiracy?

This time last year, most news outlets dismissed the lab escape theory, frequently citing a highly-touted Scripps Research Institute "study" that insisted Covid started in the wild, not in a lab. Lab escape promptly became another "conspiracy theory" authored by "right-wing" nuts out to prop up then-President Donald Trump's "China virus" rhetoric.

As with so much about Covid, the prevailing wisdom has changed -- significantly. Today, scientific, media, and political leaders are giving lab escape a second look.  Once dismissed as "fringe," the lab-leak theory is "gaining traction," the BBC reported May 27.

Biden's announcement has made that traction all the more gripping.

Strange Disclaimers

A year ago in April, I sought my own answers about Covid, after noticing a trend without precedent in my 20+ years reporting medical and health science, breaking a few unlikely stories on the way.

News editors at reputable science publications were adding italicized disclaimers above years-old stories about SARS-Coronavirus (Covid) research, apparently over "conspiracy theory" worries.

Covid gets its name from its shape -- it has that now-familiar crown, or corona, of spikes-- and the disease it causes: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The Scientist editors posted this disclaimer above a Nov. 16, 2015 story titled,"Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate.  Creation of SARS-like virus has scientists discussing gain-of-function research risks."

Update (March 11, 2020): On social media and news outlets, a theory has circulated that the coronavirus at the root of the COVID-19 outbreak originated in a research lab. Scientists say there is no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a lab.

On April 13, 2020 I emailed Jef Akst, the reporter bylined on the piece. The publication's editors, I knew from experience, were sticklers for getting it right the first time.  This years-later notation struck me as out of character.

"With all due respect to you and The Scientist, the disclaimer posted at the top of your 2015 story regarding Ralph Baric, et. al.’s gain-of-function research is unfortunate," I emailed Akst. "It strikes me as second-guessing years after the fact, perhaps to tamp down inquiry about Dr. Baric’s work and its possible implications in the current Covid crisis . . . it does not serve the interests of science journalism or scientific inquiry . . ."

Akst did not respond, and the disclaimer remains. So did my questions, which led me from China to North Carolina.  

The China Carolina connectionBaric; UNC photo

Though we read and hear almost exclusively about Chinese researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Ralph Baric, Ph.D. may be the true global leader in the kind of research that created Covid 19, if it escaped from a lab.

It's called Gain of Function (GOF) research, a source of promise and angst in the scientifc community since its inception. 

The idea is to engineer a pathogen from an otherwise harmless bug. A simple cold virus, for instance, "gains" the ability -- a new function -- to kill people.  

A University of North Carolina (UNC) microbiology and immunology professor, Baric -- and a team of prestige researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Wuhan, and even our own FDA -- published a groundbreaking 2015 paper in Nature Medicine announcing they had "engineered" a virus that walks and quacks just like Covid-19.

Using a technique called the "SARS-CoV reverse genetics system,"  Baric and company "generated and characterized a virus" with the "spike of bat coronavirus" on a "SARS-Covid backbone," their paper explained.

This "chimera" -- the scientific name for an artificial, man-made virus -- "gained" the ability to jump from bats, where it was native, to humans, where it was not -- and sicken or kill them.

Baric's team -- which included Wuhan researchers Xing-Yi Ge and Zhengli-Li Shi, aka the notorious "Covid bat lady" -- pronounced their Frankenstein virus "highly pathogenic" and without cure.

"There is no treatment for this newly discovered virus," the UNC press office announced at the time, aside an eerily-prescient quote from Dr. Baric: “This is not a situation of ‘if’ there will be an outbreak of one of these coronaviruses, but rather when, and how prepared we’ll be to address it.”
Worth the risk?

Media outlets greeted Baric's research with a mix of elation and suspicion: elation over the potential for future pandemic planning and medicines; suspicion over the potential for laboratory escape.

Wain-Hobson"In order to study it in a lab, scientists have created a hybrid version of a virus that could be the world's next pandemic -- a SARS 2.0," Vice Magazine reported, nearly six years ago

"The findings have brought up ethical questions about whether scientists should pursue 'gain-of-function' research, or work that could increase the virulence of certain pathogens, despite the dangers of creating a virus that could potentially wreak havoc if released into the wild." 

"If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory," Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and longtime critic of GOF research, told Nature -- in 2015. (Note the sme editorial disclaimer on this story.)
But the potential for new vaccines and immune-based treatments outweighed the risks, Baric -- a 30-year veteran of the coronavirus wars -- argued.  That claim has had enough merit to attract funding for his work, including from Baric Lab partner Gilead Bioscience, the maker of Remdesivir, a potential Covid treatment. 

About Baric's lab-created virus, Vice Magazine reporter Melissa Cronin ended her 2015 piece on this retrospectively-chilling note:
"It's unclear whether the new virus, like SARS, could jump from human to human yet. Until then, scientists will continue to develop new defenses against the next epidemic—and wait for it to arrive."