Intelligence agencies in the U.S. have been researching virus samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of their quest to determine where COVID-19 originated, and there are two likely scenarios being explored. One is that the virus emerged through human contact with an infected animal, while the other involves the virus emerging from a laboratory accident.
The intelligence analysts have been poring over a lengthy catalog that contains genetic blueprints for virus samples that were studied at the Wuhan lab. However, it is not known how the U.S. gained access to this data as the Chinese government has not cooperated in helping them determine the origins of the virus in the past. In fact, China refused to pass on the raw data of 174 early COVID-19 cases to an investigation team with the World Health Organization.
According to CNN, the machines that are used to create and process genetic data from viruses are often connected to external cloud-based servers, which means there is a possibility that they could have been hacked.
Regardless of how it was obtained, it may provide valuable insight into the origins of the virus and possibly prove the lab leak theory. However, analysts are encountering difficulties looking through the highly complex Chinese data. Supercomputers from the Department of Energy’s National Labs are being used to help because of the high degree of computing power needed to process everything.
It has also been difficult to find qualified staff who not only possess the proper security clearance to handle the data but also understand Mandarin Chinese and the specialized vocabulary in that language that is used in the data.
A source told CNN: “Obviously there are scientists who are (security) cleared. But Mandarin-speaking ones who are cleared? That’s a very small pool. And not just any scientists, but ones who specialize in bio? So you can see how this quickly becomes difficult.”
Investigators working hard to find answers
They are looking for data on the initial host of the virus as well as any species it might have passed through during its adaptation to humans, along with “any progenitor virus and/or virus that could serve as backbone for genetic engineering purposes.”
It appears increasingly likely that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have genetically altered a virus in their lab using gain of function research that may have infected researchers, who could have then spread it throughout their community. The investigators are looking to determine precisely which viruses the researchers at the lab had been working on.
Although filling in the missing genetic link will not be sufficient to prove beyond a doubt whether the virus originated at the lab or emerged naturally, it is a very important piece of the puzzle. Senior intelligence officials are said to be split between the two prevailing theories as well as the possibility that both scenarios took place.
Senior officials in the Biden administration who are overseeing a 90-day review reportedly view the theory of the virus accidentally escaping from the Wuhan lab as being at least as credible as the idea that it could have emerged naturally in the wild. This marks a significant shift from last year, when Democrats downplayed the lab leak theory.
Lawmakers in the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees have also expressed concerns about efforts by China “to conceal the severity and scope of the outbreak” of the virus that caused the pandemic.
They said: “We also believe that the investigation should address PRC efforts to prevent international inquiries into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and other actions PRC authorities have taken to obscure the nature of the virus and its transmission.”
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