The COVID outbreak has unleashed a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in the country. India's future stares into an endless tunnel of gloom, despair, and helplessness. Not a single household has been spared the wrath of this virus. A huge population is struggling for hospitalizations, medicines, and finally for life. While we believe that we are fighting this virus, In the end, the virus would live its course, return to nature, its place in the animal kingdom. We would be left with bruised lives, broken families, and irreparable losses.
Since the early outbreak of the disease, a number of theories about its origins have surfaced. Initially, the outbreak was attributed to the wet markets in Wuhan, China. Gradually, public opinion started tilting in favor of the natural origins of the disease. Recently, with more scientific evidence emerging, the lab origin of the disease is gaining credence.
Renowned arms control expert, Milton Leitenberg had delineated evidence supporting lab escape at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in June 2020. A recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Nicholas Wade outlines important scientific clues. These clues establish that COVID has had a lab origin. Wade's article brings two important scientific findings related to the virus. First, the furin cleavage site, and second the series of codons.
The furin cleavage site in the spike protein (S) is responsible for high infectivity and transmissibility of the Covid causing virus. The spike protein has two sub-units. The first, called S1, recognizes the virus's target. The second subunit, S2, helps the virus to fuse with the cell's membrane. Once inside, the virus will force the human cell to generate more of its kind. This invasion of the human cell begins when the S1 and S2 units have been separated. The furin cleavage site is situated at the S1/S2 junction. Two considerations are crucial. First, of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only the COVID-causing virus possesses a furin cleavage site. Second, Wade points out that the virus received its furin cleavage site from a gain-of-function experiment. Dr. Kanta Subbarao in a summary report published in 2015 explains that any selection process involving an alteration of genotypes and their resulting phenotypes is considered a type of Gain-of-Function (GoF) research. Further, researchers now have "advanced molecular technologies, such as reverse genetics, which allows them to produce de novo recombinant viruses from cloned cDNA, and deep sequencing that are critical for studying how viruses escape the host immune system and antiviral controls".
The series of codons is a trinucleotide sequence of DNA or RNA that corresponds to a specific amino acid. In a computer-generated string of 30,000 nucleotides of its genome, the Covid causing virus has a 12-nucleotide insert at the S1/S2 junction. The insert is the sequence T- CCT-CGG-CGG-GC. This double codon CGG-CGG has not been found in any other beta-coronavirus. Perhaps a scientist intending to introduce the furin cleavage in the virus might have used the CGG codons.
Work by the team of researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology led by Shi Zheng-li or "Bat Lady," was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)a part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) from June 2014 to May 2019. The grants were assigned to the prime contractor, Daszak of the Eco Health Alliance, who subcontracted them to Shi.
Many open-source documents point out that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells. It is no surprise that the pandemic broke out at Wuhan. Crucially, the researchers were not vaccinated and worked in minimal security of a BSL2 laboratory. Wade concludes that given the above conditions, the Covid causing virus accidentally escaped from the lab at Wuhan, China.
While Nicholas Wade has provided a credible scientific basis, it remains to be seen as to what kind of processes can be set into motion to hold accountability in the case of an accidental release of a deadly bioagent. It is imperative that the scientific community evolves safeguards that balance the imperative of research in biosciences and its spin-off in weaponry.
Globally, The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC) is the only instrument that may prevent the hostile use of technology. This treaty has been in force since 1975. The BWC bans an entire category of weapons. However, it allows the use of biological agents for "prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes". Every five years a Review Conference is held for the state parties and to ensure the viability of the treaty. BWC suffers from teething issues of scope, verification, implementation, etc. In spite of these shortcomings, there is no other major international agreement pertaining to the disarmament of biological weapons. With 183 member states to this date, the state parties to the treaty should deliberate concerns regarding the spinoff of advances of biosciences in weaponry and their potential use.
The strategies that have been evolved to combat outbreaks of diseases have been limited to two spheres, one of law enforcement/national defense and two in the area of public health. Biodefense includes medical preparedness like research and funding into medications, vaccinations, etc. In the long term, this area should be the priority area for India. Locally, the strategy to combat outbreaks of disease is limited to the area of public health. Most preventive measures are part of an overall posture to protect people from disease. Therefore, it is imperative that states like India ensure measures to bolster public health measures. The recent outbreak has brought out more than ever before the importance of an efficient grass-root health system. Only strengthened measures will ensure that an outbreak of disease, whether unintended or natural, is handled efficiently.
In the end, the threat of emerging diseases is a threat to India's internal security as well. Ensuring domestic security in the present scenario has brought a new player, the public health system, into the sphere of national security. Public health structure should now become the key focus of any future national security policy.
~Dr.Monalisa Joshi, Post Doctoral fellow Manipur University