Banal-52, a Lao bat virus, shares 96.8 percent of its genome with Sars-Cov-2.
Newly leaked emails from the U.S. government indicate that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying coronaviruses found in bats from Laos in the months before the pandemic.
This revelation indicates that a lab-leak origin for SARS-Cov-2 virus (the pathogen causing COVID-19) is a strong possibility.
In September, scientists discovered Banal-52, a coronavirus found in Lao bats, which shares 96.8 percent of its genome with Sars-Cov-2.
The striking similarity between the two coronaviruses led scientists to speculate that the Lao bat strain could have somehow given rise to Sars-Cov-2.
But there was one glaring problem: how could a virus originating in bats living in Laos spark an outbreak in Wuhan over 1000 miles away?
That puzzle might now have been solved, as leaked emails between EcoHealth Alliance and US government funders reveal viral samples from Lao bats were being collected and sent for study in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Back in September, Nature published news of the Laos bat virus discovery, pushing it as proof of its “natural origin”. Yet, a few critical aspects were suggestive of lab manipulation.
The Laos study offers insight into the origins of the pandemic, but there are still missing links, say researchers. For example, the Laos viruses don’t contain the so-called furin cleavage site on the spike protein that further aids the entry of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses into human cells.
The study also doesn’t clarify how a progenitor of the virus could have travelled to Wuhan, in central China, where the first known cases of COVID-19 were identified — or whether the virus hitched a ride on an intermediate animal.
It appears that the virus did hitch a ride on an intermediate animal…in the form of human researcher.
Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand-based data scientist, notes that the new evidence provides a “plausible” route for the viral spread from Laos bats to people in Wuhan.
“Now we have a very plausible direct route with two options,” wrote Demaneuf, also a member of the pandemic-origins research group DRASTIC, in a blogpost.
DRASTIC stands for ‘decentralised radical autonomous search team investigating Covid-19’. It has set itself the mission of exploring the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
“Number one, a Wuhan bat sampler infected on a field sampling trip. Number two, a research accident in Wuhan when manipulating a Laos Banal-like bat coronavirus,” Demaneuf said.
However, records of the genetic sequences collected from both Yunnan and Laos were removed from an online database at the Wuhan institute in September 2019, just months before the pandemic struck the world, making it difficult for the experts searching the origins of the pandemic.
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