A group of Chinese scientists lobbied to rename ‘SARS-CoV-2’ to ‘2019-nCoV’. In the correspondence, the scientists feared that the virus would become known as ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’ or ‘Wuhan Pneumonia’.

 

The truth behind the science around the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 lies with Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance and Prof Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

According to the email obtained by the US Right To Know organization, on January 13, 2020, in an email to Peter Daszak at 6.50 pm, Ralph Baric, states:

“Hi Peter, I have to participate in an NIH call tomorrow at 10. I believe it’s a strategic meeting designed to help craft a NIH response plan to the WU-CoV. Hope things are going well. Looks like we found our highly variable SARS-like CoV! Ralph”

In reply to Ralph Baric’s email, Peter Daszak at 7.55 pm states:

“It sounds like we’re on the same call! And my exact thoughts are of the highly variable SARS-like CoV. I’ve told journalists about it, but it’s a complicated story for them to get across.”

On 13 January 2020, before China or the World Health Organisation (WHO) made any official statement on the nature of the coronavirus, both Ralph Baric and Peter Daszak in their emails appear to be confident that the coronavirus in China is a “highly variable SARS-like CoV”. Most importantly, Ralph Baric refers to the coronavirus as “Our highly variable SARS-like COV”, displaying a familiarity with the virus.

Reportedly, in 2013, the American virologist Ralph Baric approached Zhengli Shi at a meeting. Shi had detected the genome of a new virus, called SHC014, that was one of the two closest relatives to the original SARS virus, but her team had not been able to culture it in the laboratory. Baric had developed a way around that problem—a technique termed as “reverse genetics” in coronaviruses. Not only did it allow him to bring an actual virus to life from its genetic code, but he could mix and match parts of multiple viruses. He wanted to take the “spike” gene from SHC014 and move it into a genetic copy of the SARS virus he already had in his laboratory. The spike molecule is what lets a coronavirus open a cell and get inside it. The resulting chimera would demonstrate whether the spike of SHC014 would attach to human cells.

Baric asked Shi Zhengli if he could have the genetic data for SHC014. “She was gracious enough to send us those sequences almost immediately,” he told media. His team introduced the virus modified with that code into mice and into a petri dish of human airway cells. Sure enough, the chimera exhibited “robust replication” in the human cells—evidence that nature was full of coronaviruses ready to leap directly to people.

It is no surprise that a group of Chinese scientists lobbied through US Professor of the University of North Carolina Ralph Baric to rename «SARS-CoV-2» given by the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Virus Taxonomy (ICTV) to “2019-nCoV”. In the correspondence, the Chinese scientists feared that the virus would become known as “Wuhan Coronavirus” or “Wuhan Pneumonia”. In an email dated 13/2/2020, Professor Shi Zhengli wrote to Ralph Baric. The subject of the email was “Virus Name”. The email had an attached document titled, “A unique and unified name for the novel coronavirus from Wuhan SJ clean”.

 

The email stated:

“Dear Ralph,

We heard that the 2019-nCoV was renamed as SARS-CoV-2. We had a fierce discussion among Chinese virologists. We have some comments on this name, I’m wondering if the CoV study group would consider a revision.

I attached the comments from me and my Chinese colleague.”

The document from Prof. Shi Zhengli to Prof. Ralph Baric states:

“A unique and unified name is needed for the novel coronavirus identified from Wuhan. An outbreak of unusual pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China, was first reported in December 2019. By 5 January 2020, Chinese scientists had quickly identified the causative agent a new type of coronavirus (CoV) belonging to the Betacoronaviruses genus of the Coronavirdae family that also includes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-CoV and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)- CoV.

On 12 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) temporarily named the virus as 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). On 30 January, WHO recommended naming the disease as “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease”. On 8 February 2020, the China National Health Commission (CNHC) announced naming the disease as “Novel CoronavirusPneumonia” (NCP). On 11 February 2020, WHO renamed the disease “coronavirus disease2019” (COVID-19). On 7 February 2020, the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Virus Taxonomy (ICTV) posted a manuscript at bioRxiv and suggested designating the novel coronavirus as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2(SA RS-CoV-2)” based on the phylogenetic analysis of related coronaviruses.

Zhengli further in her document to Ralph Baric says, “By 11th February 2020, the new coronavirus had caused more than 40,000 confirmed infections and more than 1000 deaths, mostly in mainland China, despite efforts by the Chinese government and its people to contain the spread of the virus in past weeks. lt goes without saying that the effects of the epidemic on all the aspects of Chinese life are devastating and, possibly, irreversible. Consequently, appropriately naming the virus and disease becomes a matter of importance to the Chinese people, in general, and virologists, in specific, and the issue has been fervently discussed and debated among scientists with the outcome, so far, as noted above. We fully agree that the new virus and SARS-CoV belong to the same virus species by classification. However, the consensus opinion of Chinese virologists is that none of the currently proposed names reflects the uniqueness and characteristics of the novel virus and that more consideration is needed for naming the virus. Based on the following reasons, we propose giving a unique and unified name to the new virus.”

Prof Shi Zhengli, also known as the “Batwoman”, continues to impress upon Ralph Baric on behalf of the group of Chinese scientists. She says, “All proposed names are either too generic, or too similar, to previously well-known viruses, or contain an Arabic number. This makes it hard to remember or recognize, leading to a tendency among the general population and scientists alike to use a shorthand term such as ‘Wuhan coronavirus’ or ‘Wuhan pneumonia’. This has, in fact. been the case since it was named as 2019-nCoV. This practice would, however, stigmatize and insult the people in Wuhan, who are still suffering from the outbreak.”

The document sent by Prof Zhengli to Ralph Baric, further states, “The new virus is still evolving, and it is still too early to predict the outcome of the current outbreak. However, it is already clear that the infection of the new virus has diverse symptoms, from asymptomatic infection to severe pneumonia and even death. It has less case-fatality rate and higher transmissibility than SARS-CoV, indicating its clear difference from SARS-CoV. Again. therefore, it is not appropriate to designate the new virus as SARS-CoV-2 before we know more properties of the virus.”

Baric, Daszak and Zhengli were working together on the gain-of-function research. Scientists have posited that SARS-CoV-2 may be a product of WIV’s experiments on an unpublished bat coronavirus that is more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13. “First, SARS-CoV-2 may have evolved in bats, which are known reservoirs of immense coronavirus diversity, and then spread directly, or indirectly via an intermediate host, to humans through natural mechanisms. The degree of anticipated but undiscovered natural diversity clearly lends support to this scenario, as well as support to other scenarios. Second, SARS-CoV-2 or a recent ancestor virus may have been collected by humans from a bat or other animal and then brought to a laboratory where it was stored knowingly or unknowingly, propagated and perhaps manipulated genetically to understand its biological properties and then released accidentally.“

Wuhan Institute of Virology authorities shut down outside access to its virus database in September 2019, thereby making it difficult to verify that “The Wuhan lab has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published. There are some concerns that some of their samples may not have been handled properly and leaked out of the lab.”

Savio Rodrigues is the founder and editor-in-chief of Goa Chronicle.