Did the Chinese achieve the ‘holy grail’ of a ‘super’ vaccine before the outbreak in Wuhan and didn’t share it with the rest of the world?

 

Bengaluru: The earlier pandemics in history were due to plague and cholera and were controlled with better community hygiene concerning drinking water, sewage and solid waste disposal. The pandemics since 1918 have been due to influenza (flu) viruses—H1N1, H2N2, H3N2 and more recently the coronaviruses (severe acute respiratory syndrome SARS1, 2,and an epidemic by Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS). The vaccines for influenza virus are updated yearly, separately for the northern and southern hemispheres and are provided around June in the north and January in the south, preceding the wet season. This year’s vaccine in India and the northern hemisphere is a Quadra vaccine i.e., it covers the prevalent 4 strains.

The SARS coronavirus is a more recent problem and has emerged from a single population of horseshoe bats in caves in Yunnan province of southern China, far away from Wuhan. These viruses have a unique spike protein that binds to the ACE2 receptors in the respiratory tracts of humans and many other commercially important animals. Binding to ACE2 receptors is essential for the virus to enter and infect the host cells. The ACE2 receptors defer in different animals and hence the spike protein of the viruses infecting bats, other animals and humans defer. Mutations in the spike protein enable the virus to jump from one animal to another with a somewhat similar ACE2 receptor. Hence, ideally the need for a “super” vaccine against the coronavirus that would protect against all variations of the spike protein that could bind to and infect the human ACE2 receptor and a similar super vaccine to protect each commercially important animal.

Since the coronaviruses were in the caves of Yunnan, funding, technology transfer, training were extended to establish the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) by the United States with help from France. In November 2015, claims were made and published (Nat Med. 2015; 21(12): 1508-1513.) about a chimeric virus (SHC014-CoV/SARS1) created by replacing the spike protein of SARS virus with spike protein of a bat virus (SHC014-CoV). This caused grave concern about the production of deadly viruses. Meanwhile, Chinese military scientists considered the bio-warfare potential of the SARS virus in a statement quoted by the Australian. A group of scientists at IIT New Delhi and University of Delhi have in a yet to be published preprint, “found 4 insertions in the spike protein which are unique to the Covid-19 and are not present in other coronaviruses. All these 4 have identity/similarity to amino acid residues in key structural proteins of HIV-AIDS; this is unlikely to be fortuitous in nature.” It is highly improbable that these got incorporated spontaneously as there is no proof yet as to how genetic material from a retrovirus like HIV could transfer to an RNA virus like coronavirus in nature. Another issue causing suspicion of genetic manipulation is that unlike coronaviruses identified in bats and pangolins, Covid-19 spike protein has a unique Furin cleavage site (FCS). FCS increases the spike protein’s efficiency to specifically bind on to human ACE2 receptor and hence increases its ability to infect and spread. “Understanding the structure and function of coronavirus spikes and their evolution can enhance our understanding of the origin of viruses”.

After the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan there have been many conspiracy theories. All discussions on its origins have been focused on finding if it mutated naturally and jumped species in the Wuhan wet market (WWM), where live wild animals are kept in close proximity or if it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). If it was from WWM, then an intermediate host has still not been definitely identified, as a direct jump from bats to humans will need too many simultaneous mutations. Both SARS1 and MERS viruses needed an intermediate host and further mutation to infect human beings. The intermediate hosts were quickly identified as civet for SARS and dromedary camel for MERS. Though pangolin was initially suspected to be the intermediate host for Covid-19, no intermediary host has been identified till now. Secondly the horseshoe bats of Yunnan have a small range of flight before they return to their caves and are most unlikely to reach Wuhan on their own unless they were brought to WIV. Since the Chinese authorities clamped down on both the WWM and WIV and sealed all records, essential evidence is not available. China’s top biological weapons expert General Chen Wei was put in charge of containment efforts in Wuhan and supervision of WIV in January 2020. This and the refusal to reveal the findings of their investigations have made the origin of Covid-19 even more suspicious.

Covid-19 has just a strand of RNA enclosed in a protective protein (nucleocapsid) within a lipid envelope with the spike protein projecting out from it. Viruses, especially RNA viruses, are the simplest of life forms and are very resilient. Airborne respiratory viruses can be transmitted even if a drop of the culture media is dropped or unsafely handled in the laboratory. Covid-19 is both an RNA virus and airborne respiratory virus. This is why it has to be studied like all dangerous bugs with biosafety level-4 securities, i.e. wearing a PPE suit in a negative pressure ventilated laboratory where evacuated air is sterilised. Question often asked is: were these precautions taken even if the WIV had these facilities. There is also the question about safe disposal of infected animals in WIV. Could they have been smuggled to WWM?

The authorities locked down Wuhan after the Covid-19 outbreak. Since then there has been no major outbreak of Covid-19 infection reported elsewhere in China except for a limited outbreak in the north, north-eastern parts in January 2021, which was said to be due to the return of Chinese workers from Russia. China’s success is claimed to be due to strict containment policies. Strict containment policies in other parts of the world have not prevented second and third waves from happeing; instead, it is mass vaccination that has worked, at least for the time being. The logical question that arises is: did the Chinese achievethe “holy grail” of a “super” vaccine before the outbreak in Wuhan and did not shareit with those who funded, trained, provided the equipment, and with the rest of the world? Have they vaccinated the “chosen” people and released lesser vaccines to the world?

In science every theory needs to be proved even if it is Einstein’s unified field theory. To collect evidence you have to ask the correct questions and to the correct people. When commercial greed, legal implications, geopolitics, national security or war strategy is involved, hard proof is difficult to get and we are left to join the dots.

Dr P.S.Venkatesh Rao, MBBS(Vellore), MS(Vellore), DNB, FRCS(Glasg), FACS, FICS, FMAS, FAES, is Consultant Endocrine, Breast & Laparoscopic Surgeon; National Delegate (India) to International Society of Surgery (ISS-SIC); President 2014-15, Indian Association of Endocrine Surgeons; former Professor of Endocrine Surgery; former Faculty CMC (Vellore), AIIMS (New Delhi), UCMS (Delhi), MSRMC (Bengaluru).