For many scientists, challenging the idea that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins is seen as career suicide. But a vocal few say it shouldn’t be disregarded or lumped in with conspiracy theories.
Nikolai Petrovsky was scrolling through social media after a day on the ski slopes when reports describing a mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, caught his eye. It was early January 2020, and Petrovsky, an immunologist, was at his vacation getaway in Keystone, Colorado, which is where he goes most years with his family to flee the searingly hot summers at home in South Australia. He was soon struck by an odd discrepancy in how the pneumonia cases were portrayed. Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization were saying there was nothing to worry about, but locals in the area, he says, were posting about “bodies being stretchered out of houses in Wuhan and police bolting apartment doors shut.”
Petrovksy is a professor at Flinders University, near Adelaide, and he is also founder and chairman of a company called Vaxine that develops immunizations for infectious diseases, among other projects. Since 2005, he’s received tens of millions of dollars in funding from the US National Institutes of Health to support the development of vaccines and compounds called adjuvants that boost their effects. After Chinese scientists posted a draft genome of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the disease culprit in Wuhan, Petrovksy—who by this time had put skiing on the back burner to work from his Colorado home office—directed his colleagues down under to run computer modeling studies of the viral sequence, a first step toward designing a vaccine.
This generated a startling result: the spike proteins studding SARS-CoV-2 bound more tightly to their human cell receptor, a protein called ACE2, than target receptors on any other species evaluated. In other words, SARS-CoV-2 was surprisingly well adapted to its human prey, which is unusual for a newly emerging pathogen. “Holy shit, that’s really weird,’” Petrovsky recalls thinking.
As Petrovsky considered whether SARS-CoV-2 might have emerged in lab cultures with human cells, or cells engineered to express the human ACE2 protein, a letter penned by 27 scientists appeared suddenly on February 19 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The authors insisted that SARS-CoV-2 had a natural origin, and they condemned any alternate hypotheses as conspiracy theories that create only “fear, rumors, and prejudice.”
Petrovksy says he found the letter infuriating. Conspiracy theorists is “the last thing we were,” he says, “and it looked to be pointing at people like us.”
Last month, a team of international scientists completed a month-long visit to Wuhan to investigate SARS-CoV-2’s origins. Convened by the WHO, and closely monitored by Chinese authorities, the team concluded initially that a lab leak was so unlikely that further investigations of it were unnecessary. The WHO’s director general later walked that statement back, claiming that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies.” A group of 26 scientists, social scientists, and science communicators—Petrovksy among them—have now signed their own letter arguing that WHO investigators lacked “the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses” to determine whether or not SARS-CoV-2 could have been the result of a laboratory incident.
The WHO investigation follows a year during which debates over SARS-CoV-2’s origins turned increasingly acrimonious. Chinese officials were, and still are, unwilling to provide information that might settle lingering questions…
Image Credit: AP
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