It’s a familiar story. Close contacts of individuals infected by a dangerous illness are being asked by UK officials to isolate as government concern about the outbreak grows. Just 57 cases have been reported in Britain so far – 168 globally – but already questions are being asked about the virus’s origins. One theory involves the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The lab, which is considered by a growing number of scientists to be the origin of the original Covid pandemic, specialises in so-called ‘gain of function experiments’. These experiments aim to genetically enhance viruses (like Covid) so they are more likely to jump species to humans. Reports emerged last year that researchers at the lab fell ill before the first cases of Covid-19 were recorded.
Now, a February study (submitted last August) has come to light suggesting similar experiments may have been carried out in Wuhan on a monkeypox virus. The paper, ‘Efficient assembly of a large fragment of monkeypox virus genome as a PCR template using dual-selection based transformation-associated recombination’, was published in the journal Virologica Sinica (the Wuhan lab’s own journal). It looked to create a monkeypox virus that could be identified on PCR tests. The researchers successfully produced a ‘genomic fragment of monkeypox virus’. The paper identified the potential risks of such research:
“This DNA assembly tool applied in virological research could also raise potential security concerns, especially when the assembled product contains a full set of genetic material that can be recovered into a contagious pathogen.
So could it have leaked? The researchers say that this would be impossible because the monkeypox DNA fragment they produced was so small – ‘less than one-third [...] of the genome’. So the experiment was: ‘fail-safe by virtually eliminating any risk of recovering into an infectious virus.’
So it’s very unlikely that any experiment on monkeypox in the Wuhan lab would have leaked. But the discovery of these experiments raises alarm given the experience of Covid. Emails uncovered between the Wellcome Trust’s Jeremy Farrar and America’s Antony Fauci suggested that the lab ‘accidentally created a virus primed for rapid transmission between humans.’ In the same emails, the former director of the US National Institutes for Health warned publication could damage ‘international harmony.’ Without more transparency within the scientific community, particularly in China, any outbreak or any virus will immediately lead to more and more suspicion.