Russia’s top virologist, Viktor Zuev, has backed China’s denial of allegations that the virus that causes COVID-19 may have escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
Similar viruses originating in bats have been collected and studied by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In recent weeks, western intelligence agencies have reportedly shown renewed interest in the theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have escaped from a lab.
“You have to work hard to make an artificial virus. All this talk comes from doing nothing. The virus came from animals and there is nothing here to make a fuss about,” Zuev told Echo Moskvy, Russia’s most popular radio station, on May 30.
Claims that the lab-origin theory is groundless are false. In fact, the jury is still out.
According Echo Moskvy’s website, Zuev was responding to new reports that U.K. intelligence believes it’s “feasible” the virus “escaped” from the bio lab. The Sunday Times reported on May 30 that U.K. intelligence is pursuing this idea. The newspaper, citing anonymous sources, provided little to explain what brought British intelligence to that view. The Times said intel officials are enlisting dark net sources in China in the search for evidence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 3.5 million people worldwide. As countries roll out vaccines, questions about the origin of SARS-Cov-2 remain unsettled and politically sensitive.
The idea that the virus leaked from the highly regarded Wuhan bio lab initially was rejected by some virologists who said it was more normal for such a virus to jump from animal hosts to humans.
More recently, as more mutations of the virus were detected and came under study, skeptics began raising fresh questions. Alina Chan, a genetic engineer and postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was among the first to challenge the natural mutation theory in the early days of the pandemic.
Chan did not claim that a lab leak was the only answer. Yet, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the only bio lab known to possess a virus with the closest genetic code to SARS-Cov-2. It could have been accidentally released, Chan told Slate in May.
Some purveyors of the lab-leak theory speculate that an original virus collected from Chinese bats could have been altered in the laboratory so that it would infect humans. China has declined to provide international bodies like the World Health Organization complete access to data or other resources about the initial outbreak of the virus in late 2019, seeding mistrust and the origins guessing game.
In a report published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on May 5, former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade explored the two main origin theories. While not dismissing natural emergence, he argued that the weight of evidence backed a lab escape.
According to Wade, initial rejection of the lab-origin theory was fueled in part by a February 19, 2020, letter in the British medical journal Lancet. The letter was “organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Wade wrote, alleging that a conflict of interest was not disclosed. (On Twitter, Daszak called Wade's story "error-filled" and "misleading.")
In late May, the U.S. intelligence community said both the natural emergence and the lab-leak theories were plausible but each lacked convincing evidence, Reuters and other news sites reported.
President Joe Biden has ordered a 90-day investigation to find answers and make them public.
On May 24, The Wall Street Journal reported that several employees at the Wuhan virology lab fell ill in November 2019, just prior to the official Chinese timeline of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Journal, citing "previously undisclosed" U.S. intelligence, said the lab workers were hospitalized with symptoms like those caused by the coronavirus.
China termed the Journal report “completely untrue.”
Beijing rejects the lab-leak theory and has tried to shift blame on the United States with misleading or false claims about the U.S. bio lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
Among Russian virologists, opinions about the origins of SARS-Cov-2 vary widely. Some firmly support China’s position and have said the lab leak is impossible. But Petr Chumakov, chief researcher at the Moscow Engelhart Institute of Molecular Biology, told Russian media in April that a Wuhan lab leak is “exceedingly” the most logical explanation.
Chumakov said genetic experiments in the Wuhan lab were aimed at understanding the disease-causing attributes of the virus – that is, its pathogenicity.
“They did absolutely crazy things, in my opinion,” he said, as quoted in The Sun newspaper. “For example, inserts in the genome, which gave the virus the ability to infect human cells. Now all this has been analyzed. The picture of the possible creation of the current coronavirus is slowly emerging.”
Chumakov noted that results of the Wuhan lab experiments were published in the open scientific press. "It’s too early to blame anyone,” The Sun quoted him as saying.
Zuev, who is vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a chief researcher at the Moscow Gamalea Institute that created the Sputnik V vaccine, has not always rejected the possibility of a lab leak and a genetically altered virus.
In March, he told the Pravda newspaper that “the wildlife is stuffed with viruses,” which “transform every second without any human intervention.” Zuev was commenting on the results of a public opinion survey that showed 64 percent of participants in Russia believed the coronavirus was specifically designed as a bioweapon.
However, in a January 2020 interview, Zuev said he did not reject the theory that the virus may have been "artificially created."