Lab or wet market: Where did the COVID-19 coronavirus come from?

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The origin of the novel coronavirus outbreak remains a mystery, with experts disagreeing on whether the virus came from either a laboratory or a wet market in the city of Wuhan, China.

While the scientific community has concluded the virus is natural and not manmade or genetically modified, the possibility the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan remains. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday added credence to this theory, stating that there is “enormous evidence” the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory.

Other US officials familiar with intelligence reporting and analysis have said they believe the virus either escaped from a Wuhan government laboratory or was introduced through human contact with wildlife at a market in the city.

Chinese officials, denying the lab was the source, have stuck with its initial designation of the Hunan Seafood Market as the origin point for the virus, known medically as SARS-CoV-2.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the idea that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab as having “no scientific basis” on April 16 and has echoed the World Health Organization’s April 21 statement that the virus likely originated in animals.

The lab argument

While the public has yet to see definitive proof of the origins of the virus, the balance of evidence suggests an accidental release from a Chinese lab, expert on China Gordon Chang told Al Arabiya English.

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the country’s intelligence agencies and organizations, said Thursday it agreed with “the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”

However, the agency said it would continue to examine whether the natural virus was accidently released from a lab in China. The lab in question is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, visited by US State Department officials in 2018. The officials raised safety concerns and warned that the institute had the potential to cause a SARS-like pandemic, according to a Washington Post report.

US President Trump said Thursday, after reviewing evidence, he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus emanated from the institute.

Chang said attempts by Chinese authorities to prevent foreign virologists and epidemiologists from participating in its investigation into the origins of the virus is a “real indication Beijing has something to hide.”

Expert Peter Li said Trump’s mentioning of the Wuhan lab as the origin of the virus is rooted in politics, not evidence, however.

“It was a political design to channel Americans’ anger towards the Trump administration to China,” said Li, professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

While Li said existing evidence and findings do not support the Wuhan lab virus escape theory, Chang in turn said scientific findings do not support the wet market theory supported by Li.

An article published in renowned British medical journal The Lancet on January 24 reported that many of the initial COVID-19 cases in Wuhan had no contact with the wet market.

“This means the wet market is probably not the source of the disease,” Chang said.

The wet market argument

However, another article in The Lancet is being used to support the wet market argument.

A Feburary 29 piece said scientists from multiple countries “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”

Preliminary findings by Chinese scientists reported that the virus seen in the first group of patients was connected to environmental samples collected at the Wuhan wildlife wet market.

“The Chinese government, including President Xi Jinping, accepted the preliminary scientific determination that Wuhan’s wildlife wet market was linked to the outbreak,” said Li.

Yet according to medical evidence, the first COVID-19 patient had no exposure to the market.

While the debate over the location origin of the virus has received much attention, Li said it has been politicized and is detracting from international collaboration to eliminate the source of future pandemics.

Scientists have also warned the debate may be in vain. Dr. Michelle Baker, an immunologist at CSIRO in Australia who studies viruses in bats, said “we don’t really know” the accuracy of the claim that the virus originated at the wildlife market.

“It’s a likely scenario, but we will never know. We can only speculate,” she said in an interview with The Guardian.