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Does The Science Really Prove COVID Is Man Made? Depends On Who You Ask

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Andrew Kerr Investigative Reporter
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  • Two scientists argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the virus that causes COVID-19 exhibits “damning” features that prove it was the product of gain-of-function research at a Wuhan lab.
  • Two prominent virologists told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the features of SARS-CoV-2 don’t support such an explosive conclusion.
  • Tulane University virologist Robert Garry, who contributed to a pivotal March 2020 study in Nature saying no lab-based origin for COVID-19 was plausible, lambasted the op-ed, calling it “gish gallop of nonsense packaged to confuse the lay public and grab a headline.”
  • Rutgers University Professor Richard Ebright, a prominent virologist in favor of the legitimacy of the lab leak theory, said the viral features highlighted in the op-ed are “more readily explained by a laboratory origin,” but also don’t rule out a natural origin.

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by two scientists on Sunday arguing that the virus that causes COVID-19 exhibits “damning” features pointing to the conclusion it is the product of gain-of-function research at a Wuhan lab.

Drs. Steven Quay and Richard Muller, neither of whom are virologists, wrote that SARS-CoV-2 contains an arginine amino acid pairing that has never been observed in naturally occurring coronaviruses in its same viral class. The scientists also argued that when the virus was so effectively optimized to infect humans when it first broke out in Wuhan that it must have been artificially enhanced in a lab setting prior to the outbreak.

“Such early optimization is unprecedented, and it suggests a long period of adaptation that predated its public spread,” Quay and Muller wrote. “The presence of the double CGG sequence is strong evidence of gene splicing, and the absence of diversity in the public outbreak suggests gain-of-function acceleration.

“The scientific evidence points to the conclusion that the virus was developed in a laboratory,” Quay and Muller said.

But prominent virologists told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the features of SARS-CoV-2 cited by Quay and Muller don’t support such an explosive conclusion.

Rutgers University Professor Richard Ebright, one of the most prominent figures in the scientific community in support of the legitimacy of the lab leak theory, explained that while the facts point more towards a lab leak origin, they don’t rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could have originated in nature.

“It is correct that the furin cleavage site and the tandem rare arginine codons could be more readily explained by a laboratory origin–as products of gain of function research–than by a natural origin,” Ebright told the DCNF.

“*However*, the furin cleavage site and the tandem rare arginine codons are not inconsistent with a natural origin,” Ebright added.

Nobel laureate David Baltimore told former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade in May that the furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 was a “smoking gun for the origin of the virus” that challenges the idea it could have originated naturally.

However, Baltimore stepped back from his “smoking gun” quote on Tuesday, telling the Los Angeles Times that he “should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way.”

“I wouldn’t rule out either origin,” Baltimore added, referring to the two theories that SARS-CoV-2 could have originated by nature or in a lab.

Tulane University virologist Robert Garry, one of the scientists who contributed to a paper published in Nature Medicine in March 2020 concluding that there are no plausible laboratory-based scenarios for COVID’s origins, said Quay and Muller’s op-ed was “wildly speculative” and full of factual errors.

“It’s a gish gallop of nonsense packaged to confuse the lay public and grab a headline,” Garry told the DCNF.

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China's Hubei province, on February 23, 2017. - The P4 epidemiological laboratory was built in co-operation with French bio-industrial firm Institut Merieux and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, on February 23, 2017. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Nature article, and a statement published in The Lancet medical journal in February 2020 condemning “conspiracy theories” that COVID-19 doesn’t have a natural origin, were widely cited by news outlets at the onset of the pandemic to suppress discussion of the lab leak theory.

Garry said Quay and Muller were wrong to say the CGG CGG codon pair has never been observed in a naturally occurring coronavirus in the same class of SARS-CoV-2. He highlighted an October 2020 paper that reported the bat coronavirus KHU9 exhibits the same codon pair.

Garry also criticized Ebright’s argument that the viral features highlighted in the op-ed are more readily explained by a lab origin.

“This is really terrible logic by a relentless opponent of GoF research. It starts backwards with the assumption that [SARS-CoV-2] is a product of GoF then misinterprets facts to force-fit the hypothesis,” Garry said. “Conclusion first is not how you should do science.”

Garry maintained that there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a laboratory. (RELATED: US Grant To Wuhan Lab To Enhance Bat-Based Coronaviruses Was Never Scrutinized By HHS Review Board, NIH Says)

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) did study the RaTG13 virus prior to the pandemic, a virus that shares 96.2% of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code, but Garry said the virus isn’t close enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have served as its progenitor.

Garry said the WIV did not have a virus any closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13, but he later acknowledged that his claim was based on the word of the institute’s top coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, and that China has not been transparent in matters related to the virus.

“Shi has been publishing on sars-like viruses since the first SARS outbreak nearly 20 years ago,” Garry said. “I can’t prove that Shi did not have SC2 or something very close (99%) but if Shi did have it why not publish it before the pandemic like all the other viruses she reported on.”

Garry also said it was “puzzling” that the WIV deleted a public database in September 2019 containing at least 16,000 virus samples it had studied prior to the pandemic, but added that the database is “not so relevant.”

“It’s puzzling that the database was deleted in September 2019 but that’s much earlier than when the first case emerged,” Garry said. “I can’t imagine any nefarious scenarios here. Unless you believe that from all the bat viruses that Shi was working on she chose to pick something close to SC2 and start weaponizing it – with the plan to release it on her own people in Wuhan.”

The four other scientists who contributed to the Nature Medicine article did not return requests for comment.

President Joe Biden said in late May that the intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” for the origins of COVID-19, that the virus either “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”

Biden ordered the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” on the origins of the virus and report back in 90 days with a more definitive conclusion.

“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said. “I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts.”

“And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work,” he said.

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