US intelligence agencies looking into data from Wuhan lab

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Since the outbreak of Covid in late 2019, the Wuhan lab has been at the heart of a raging debate about a suspected leak of pathogens from the secretive facility. The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is yet to be conclusively determined but it most likely spread to humans from an animal source somewhere in Wuhan, China. But questions about the virus’s origin are being asked once more after it emerged Chinese and US scientists reportedly applied to create new coronaviruses that do not exist in nature.

According to the Telegraph, leaked documents filed with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), show an international team of scientists were planning to grow a new virus by combining the genetic material of various other strains.

Coronaviruses are a fairly large family of pathogens that infect both animals and humans.

Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-Sixties, and there are seven types presently known to infect people.

Of the seven, the SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV beta strains caused the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the MERS outbreak in 2012, respectively.

In both cases, the viruses made the jump to humans from infected animals.

The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, however, is yet to be found in the wild although it is suspected to have been transmitted from infected bats.

But the virus’s closest-known relative is the BANAL-52 strain, which was found to be carried by bats in Laos.

According to a report in the journal Nature, scientists have identified three viruses that are more than 95 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2.

The DARPA proposal, seen by Express.co.uk, to create a new virus is said to have been filed in 2018 but was leaked last month to the analysis group Drastic.

The documents appear to show scientists had planned to take the genetic sequences of known coronavirus strains to combine them into a new generation of virus.

The proposal reads: “We will compile sequence/RNAseq data from a panel of closely related strains and compare full-length genomes, scanning for unique SNPs representing sequencing errors.

Wuhan lab researchers handle bats in 2017 promo footage

“Consensus candidate genomes will be synthesised commercially using established techniques and genome-length RNA and electroporation to recover recombinant viruses.”

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) collaborator, the experiments would see scientists create an “average” of the combined virus strains.

The new creation would be a brand new sequence and would not be “a 100 percent match to anything”.

The source was quoted saying: “They would then synthesise the viral genome from the computer sequence, thus creating a virus genome that did not exist in nature but looks natural as it is the average of natural viruses.

“Then they put that RNA in a cell and recover the virus from it.

“This creates a virus that has never existed in nature, with a new ‘backbone’ that didn’t exist in nature but is very, very similar as it’s the average of natural backbones.”

But the DARPA proposal was shot down the same year it was submitted.

It was filed on behalf of a consortium of scientists involving the Daszak EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the University of North Carolina and Duke NUS in Singapore.

It is likely the researchers were looking to synthesise a universal coronavirus vaccine.

Scientists at the Wuhan institute have repeatedly denied creating the novel coronavirus in a lab.

Researchers at Nature investigated the Wuhan lab leak theory earlier this summer and concluded there is no “substantial evidence” to back the claims.

Authors Amy Maxmen and Smriti Mallapaty noted the virus could have emerged from a lab “in theory” and the theory cannot be entirely ruled out but “many infectious-disease researchers agree that the most probable scenario is that the virus evolved naturally and spread from a bat either directly to a person or through an intermediate animal”.

Many infectious diseases like HIV and ebola follow similar trajectories of infection.

In August, US President Joe Biden was handed a report investigating the Wuhan lab leak theory.

However, due to China’s reluctance to aid international efforts to investigate the virus, the report was deemed inconclusive.

The official position of the WHO is that it is “extremely unlikely” the virus escaped from a laboratory.

Peter Ben Embarek, WHO programme manager, said in February the virus most likely originated in animals, though it is unclear how it made the jump to humans.

The scientist led a team of WHO researchers dispatched to China to study the virus’s origin.

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