Explained: MPs Urge Centre To Pursue Covid Origin Hunt, The Debate On Covid Origin And What Probes Say

An Indian parliamentary panel has said the origin of Covid-19 should be identified and culprits behind it should be penalised internationally.

Coronavirus (Representative image)

An Indian parliamentary panel has urged the Government of India to appeal to the world to identify the origin of Covid-19.

Covid-19 disease is caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is one of the many types of coronaviruses, and was first discovered in China in 2019. However, even after almost three years of the first emergence of the virus, the world does not know its exact origin. 

The parliamentary panel noted that the origin remains "obscure" and if it is allowed to remain a mystery, it will have grave consequences for the bio-safety and the bio-security of the world. 

Here we explain what the parliamentary panel said on the Covid-19 origin, what's the ongoing debate on the subject, and what investigations have so far found. 

Panel urges Centre to push world on Covid origin

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health in a recent report noted that the origin of Covid-19 is not yet established and Government of India should rally the world to identify the origin. It further said that knowing the Covid-19 origin would be key to dealing with future diseases.

The panel further said, "The Committee strongly believes that it is incumbent upon global scientists to accelerate its efforts in identifying novel pathogens and establish a robust surveillance mechanism for faster detection of the pathogens. In this regard, it becomes all the more important to identify the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and investigate its origin along all the possible pathway of emergence."

The panel noted that laboratory-leak theory has not been ruled out and studies are required on the theory.

Not just the panel urges the government to push the world to identify Covid-19 origin, it also asks to "penalise the culprits". 

"The Committee, therefore, strongly recommends the government to reckon its diplomacy to appeal to the comity of nations to conduct more studies to identify the origin of Covid-19 and penalise the culprits at the International platform," said the panel.

The panel also highlighted the need for a framework to trace the origin and route of tranmission of pathogens in light of emerging viruses. It recommended the Union Health Ministry to set up a mechanism to investigate and manage future outbreaks.

"The Committee further feels that the increasing number of emerging virus highlights the necessity of establishing a robust mechanism for systematic investigation of the origin and the route of transmission of the pathogens. The Committee accordingly recommends the Ministry to develop a healthcare framework in the country for investigating and managing future outbreaks more effectively," said the panel in its report.

Where did Covid-19 come from?

After over 61 crore Covid-19 infections and over 65 lakh deaths, the world still does not know where SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19 disease, came from. 

Only one thing is certain — the virus first emerged in Wuhan in China. Even the widely-held belief that humans were infected by bats is just that, a belief, rather than a scientifically proven fact. 

For much of 2020, most of the Western experts and media were staunchly against the idea that the virus could have originated in a laboratory. They termed it a conspiracy theory. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) initially said that it would be "extremely unlikely". However, the press as well as an increasing number of experts have since began to raise the possibility of both natural- as well as lab-origin of Covid-19 should be investigated. 

In a sharp reversal of its earlier stance, the WHO in June said that all possibilities are on the table for investigation. 

The Associated Press quoted Jean-Claude Manuguerra, the co-chair of a 27-member advisory group of the WHO, as saying that some scientists might be "allergic" to the idea of investigating the lab leak theory and they needed to be "open-minded" enough to examine it. 

"All hypotheses must remain on the table until we have evidence that enables us to rule certain hypotheses in or out," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

US President Joe Biden also tasked the US intelligence community with investigating the Covid-19 origin. The intelligence community also did not rule out the laboratory origin, noting that there is no conclusive evidence to confirm or rule out either a natural- or lab-origin.

The Covid-19 origin debate is a very divisive scintific and political issue as China has refused access to its data and has suppressed access as well as flow of information and has punished people speaking out. In the light of a large body of evidence that the Chinese were researching coronaviruses for years and were performing "gain of function" research leads to questions whether the Chinese government is suppressing its scientists role in a potential leak.

The case for Covid lab-origin

Simply speaking, lab-origin argument is that when Chinese scientists were working on coronaviruses in their labs, it accidentally leaked into outside world.

This argument is supported by the body of evidence that Chinese scientists were hunting, sampling, and carrying out research on coronaviruses for years. Moreover, it is also supported by the fact that the Chinese government covered up the initial Covid-19 outbreak and did not share crucial information with the world, downplaying the risk posed by the virus. These cover ups prevented the world from preparing for the pandemic in a better way.

Moreover, the case for lab-origin is further strengthened by the fact that even after more than two years of denials by the Chinese and a large number of scientists, they have not been able to show a natural origin for Covid-19.


China's gain of function research on coronaviruses

The 'gain of function' research by the Chinese on coronaviruses is key to understanding the debate on the origin of Covid-19, particularly the case for the laboratory origin of the virus.

Simply speaking, 'gain-of-function' research means taking a virus (like SARS or MERS) and modifying it in a lab to make it more lethal. 

It should be noted here that there are hundreds of coronaviruses, but only seven including SARS-CoV-2 causing Covid-19 affect humans. The Chinese were working on a wide range of coronaviruses in their labs, including in Wuhan where Covid-19 was first discovered.


To understand the extent of such research, take this case: In 1990s, Ralph Baric and Boyd Yount of the University of North Carolina "trained" a mice coronavirus to infect hamsters, which means they made the virus infect a species that it wouldn't have infected naturally. They altered the nature of the virus to infect an entirely new specie. 

Chinese research on coronaviruses, cover-ups

The Chinese were collecting coronavirus samples and researching on them in Wuhan since at least 2010. Wuhan Institute of Virology's (WIV) Shi Zhengli, called 'Bat Woman' for her research on bat viruses, and her American collegue Peter Daszak published an account of 630 coronaviruses sampled between 2010-15. 


Earlier in the pandemic, Zhengli wrote that Sars-CoV-2 closely resembled an earlier virus called RaTG13. But she didn't share much about it.

It was an Indian open-source investigator who unearthed that WIV had found RaTG13 in China's Yunnan province, as per Newsweek. The Indian investigator, who goes by the pseudonym The Seeker, found that the "genetic sequence for RaTG13 perfectly matched a small piece of genetic code posted as part of a paper written by Shi Zhengli years earlier, but never mentioned again". 

Experts, including scientists Alina Chan, science writer Matt Ridley, and others, spent hours searching online for RaTG13, which was 96.2 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2.


Later, it emerged that the Chinese had renamed RaTG13 as Bt-CoV/4991 in their records, which meant that unless someone looked very carefully, no one would draw the link. This meant that the Chinese had the closest ancestor of the virus causing Covid-19 in their lab for years, were aware of it, and they deliberately kept this information from the world.

Later findings would further put a question mark on Chinese researchers.

Where did the closest ancestor come from?

The RaTG13 virus came from a mine in China's Mojiang in Yunnan province. Six miners cleaning bat guano in Mojiang fell ill and three of them died. 


The Seeker found a Chinese student's thesis that described the miners' illness. The thesis said the illness was "caused by SARS-like [coronavirus] from the Chinese horseshoe bat or other bats". This thesis, and another thesis that The Seeker found, showed that four of these miners had tested positive for SARS-like anti-bodies.

When The Seeker shared this information publicly, the Chinese government shut down public access to its databases that had these documents. Note, one of the key arguments for Chinese complicity in the Covid-origin through a lab leak is their opacity and cover-ups, suggesting they have something to hide.

To sum it up, the Chinese knew they had SARS-CoV-2's closest ancestor in their freezers which had caused deaths earlier. They renamed it which meant the world could not draw the connection. When discovered, they shut down their databases. 


Later when Zhengli and her American fellow researcher Daszak published the account of 630 coronaviruses they had sampled, the open-source investigators' collective DRASTIC went through them and found eight more viruses closely related to RaTG13 —the closest to SARS-CoV-2— but Zhengli had not flagged it, reported Vanity Fair

Chinese studied coronaviruses all these years

Newsweek reported that data scientist Francisco de Asis de Ribera discovered that Chinese scientists were working on RaTG13 as late as 2018, adding that they made at least seven trips to the mine where the virus was discovered in Mojiang in Yunnan province to collect thousands of samples.


Vanity Fair's Katherine Eban reported, citing US State Department sources, that "three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all connected with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, had fallen ill in November 2019 and appeared to have visited the hospital with symptoms similar to Covid-19".

The first suspected case of Covid-19 emerged in China on 17 November 2019 and the first confirmed case on 1 December, according to a timeline by scientist Chan and science writer Ridley in their book VIRAL:The Search for the Origin of Covid-19. This information in addition to the fact that Chinese had not one but nine viruses very closely related to SARS-CoV-2 for years and they did not disclose it to the world poses further questions.


Katherine put it like this, quoting a US official: An institute funded by American dollars [as WIV was working on American government grants] is trying to teach a bat virus to infect human cells, then there is a virus in the same city as that lab. It is not being intellectually honest not to consider the hypothesis of a lab escape.

Burden of proof is on Chinese: Experts

While a number of epxerts have questioned the lab-leak hypothesis for its lack of "smoking gun", people pursuing this line of investigation stressed while there is no smoking gun for lab-origin, there is none for natural-origin as well. Even now, no one knows for sure which animal first infected humans — if it did at all. 


Moreover, experts stress that they are not saying that the virus emerged from a lab. They stress that they are looking for and presenting the evidence and are only pushing for an investigation for such a possibility.

However, after such a large body of evidence documenting Chinese research on viruses and cover ups, Alina and Matt in their book VIRAL wrote that the burden of proof should be on those advocating a natural origin. 

They noted: "Much of the debate about the origin of the virus assumes that the laboratory-leak theory must prove itself. Natural spillover, by contrast, is the default assumption, which does not have to prove anything."


Alina and Matt added that the ball is now in the opponent's court.

They wrote: "Given the powerful circumstantial evidence that Wuhan was not a particularly likely place for a natural epidemic of a SARS-like virus to begin, but an obvious one for a laboratory-leaked one to start [because it has WIV that was researching on coronaviruses for years], it is surely reasonable to expect both hypotheses to be put to a similarly rigorous test."

While in the book, Alina did not take a side, evidence unearthed after the publication of the book made her tilt towards the lab origin of a virus.