How study of Antarctic soil samples unearthed Covid lab leak clue
Jan 2019: Scientists from the University of Science Technology of China collect 12 soil samples on King George Island, Antarctica, during study of penguin bacteria.
November 2019: Three workers at the Wuhan Insititue of virology fall sick with Covid-like symptoms, according to US intelligence
Dec 2019: The Arctic soil samples are sent to the Sangon Biotech laboratory in Shanghai, China, to be sequenced.
The Sangon Biotech laboratory also sequences samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Dec 2019/early 2020: The samples are analysed and during the sequencing contaminated by a different sample from another project, likely through a barcode error at the lab.
The other sample contains a mutated version of Covid-19 and genetic material from monkeys and hamsters suggesting it is from lab testing.
Virologists say the variant is a descendant of the original Wuhan strain of Covid-19. Some experts believe it is an ancestor virus that is the bridge between bat coronavirus and Covid-19.
Dec 31 2019: China confirms its first cases of Covid after reports of mystery illness spreading since November 2019.
Early 2020: The Covid sequences are uploaded to an international database with in the dataset from the Antarctic soil sample , but not exactly clear when. They go unnoticed for over a year.
Jan 2021: Researchers at Lorand University and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hungary discover three of the Antarctic soil samples contain traces of what may be an ancestral version of Covid, along with monkey and hamster DNA.
Dec 23, 2021: The scientists publish a pre-print paper online, warning the contaminated samples could indicate the possible origin of Covid.
Jan 2022: Public access to the data is revoked after the pre-print is released and then restored a month later.
Chinese researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China, near Shanghai, said they did not ask to have the data deleted or restored.
Feb 2022: Hungarian scientists publish a second pre-print suggesting the samples may be contaminated with an early version of Covid.
The theory that Covid leaked from a laboratory was given fresh momentum last night after scientists studying soil samples in Antarctica stumbled upon traces of the virus that may have been manipulated in a Chinese research facility.
Rare coronavirus mutations from a sample processed in Shanghai at the beginning of the pandemic were found along with genetic material from hamsters and monkeys, which suggest the virus was being experimented on using either the animals themselves or their cells.
There is some debate among scientists about whether the changes predate the original Wuhan Covid but most virologists believe the mutations came after the coronavirus first jumped to humans.
Scientists made the discovery by accident while examining DNA from soil samples collected from Antarctica in late 2018 and early 2019 in a completely unrelated research project.
The samples had been sent to the company Sangon Biotech in Shanghai to be analysed in December 2019, where a ‘barcode error’ saw them become contaminated with previously unseen coronavirus mutations.
The machine being used to analyse the samples has been known to suffer barcode reading errors – meaning samples from two different projects can be mixed together.
In this case, the Antarctic soil is believed to have been mixed with the DNA from lab monkeys or hamsters carrying coronavirus.
The Sangon facility is thought to be used by Chinese researchers, including those at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) — the lab at the centre of the accidental leak hypothesis.
Some experts said the new mutations bridge the gap between the original bat coronavirus and the one that jumped to humans — the missing piece of the puzzle that has escaped scientists for the past two years.
But others believe the contamination came from samples of China’s early Covid patients, who were announced in December 2019.
A third theory is that the genetic material is from other animal-borne coronaviruses that were circulating at the time or being experimented on by the Chinese.
The timing of the contamination is one of the key unknowns, but the Hungarian team who found the sample error say the virus could be the ancestor of the original Wuhan strain, if the mistake happened in December 2019.
If the samples were analysed in early 2020, however, Chinese labs would have already built up a library of Covid test samples and the contamination may have occurred during experiments to learn more about the novel virus.
When the Hungarian researchers first reported the mistake, they said the samples were wiped from the genetic database by Chinese researchers – although they have since been reuploaded.
China previously deleted crucial data from the earliest confirmed Covid patients in Wuhan and silenced Chinese scientists who questioned the official narrative as part of its state-sponsored cover-up that has fuelled suspicion about the true origins of the pandemic.
The latest findings, from Eotvos Lorand University and the University of Veterinary Medicine, both in Budapest, have been published online but not yet formally reviewed by other scientists.
They were looking at online DNA databases in January 2021 when they noticed the probable cross-contamination of the soil samples.
Virologist Shi Zheng-li works with her colleague in the P4 lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei province – which is at the heart of the lab-leak theory. Nicknamed the ‘Bat Lady’, Zheng-li hunted down dozens of deadly Covid-like viruses in bat caves and studied them at the WIV
The Hungarian researchers traced the samples back to a study by the University of Science Technology of China in late 2018 and early 2019.
The Chinese project was looking at bacteria from penguins and saw the team collect a dozen soil samples on King George Island, Antarctica, during a three-week period.
China’s official timeline of the coronavirus pandemic vs counter-claims
Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection
Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation
Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection
Jan 7 – President Xi Jinping discusses coronavirus outbreak with his politburo
Jan 9 – China makes public the genome of the coronavirus
Jan 11 – China reported its first death
Jan 13 – First case outside China is confirmed
Jan 20 – China’s National Health Commission confirms human-to-human transmission
Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down
Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases
Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West
May 29 – China claims virus did not originate in wet markets but in Chinese bats before it jumped to humans via an ‘intermediary animal’
July 31 – Chinese researcher admits some coronavirus experiments conducted in lower biosafety labs
Dec 16 – WHO announces it will travel to Wuhan to probe origins of virus in January
Jan 5, 2021 – China denies entry to WHO’s investigatory team
Feb 9 – WHO dismisses theory virus leaked from lab – backs China’s claim it was imported from frozen meat
Mar 28 – Former US national security officials says intel shows ‘there was a direct order from Beijing to destroy all viral samples’ at Wuhan lab
2012: Six miners struck down with with a mysterious flu-like illness in Mojiang cave in Yunnan.
They were found to have been infected with the closest known relative to Covid, sharing 97% of its genes.
Samples RATG13 are sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to be studied.
Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus
Oct – Whistleblower Wei Jingsheng claims China deliberately spread Covid at The World Military Games in Wuhan in October, two months before the rest of the world knew about the virus
Oct – Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime tried desperately to shut down whistle-blowers like Mr Jingsheng. Any references made in social media about a new SARS virus or ‘outbreak’ were censored
Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus
Nov – Whistleblower Mr Jingsheng claims he took his concerns about the military games to senior figures within the Trump administration but was ignored
Nov – Intelligence report passed to agencies in Washington claims three members of staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought hospital treatment in November 2019 after experiencing symptoms consistent with Covid
Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present
Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus
Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date
Dec – Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, report existance of new type of respiratory infection. But Chinese police arrested him and eight of his colleagues for questioning – instead of publicising reports and warning public
Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing
Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities
Dec 26 – Samples analysed suggested a new type of SARS was circulating as early as December 26, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22
Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city
Jan 3 – Covid-19 infections begin sweeping across other nations including the U.S. as the WHO labelled the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern
May – Scientists at a government lab in California concluded that Covid-19 may have escaped from a facility in Wuhan
July – WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said China failed share vital raw data during their investigation in Wuhan. China rebuffed those claims
June 2021: Leading US virus expert Dr Anthony Fauci was warned Covid may have been engineered in a lab, emails publicly released reveal.
August: The world’s first Covid-19 patient may have been infected by a bat while working for a Wuhan lab in China, WHO chief Dr Peter Embarek said
August: A damning report by Republicans in the US claims coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, shortly after the facility tried to improve air safety and waste treatment systems
The report also cited ‘ample evidence’ that lab scientists were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans and such manipulation could be hidden.
October: US intelligence review into origins of pandemic does not reach a judgement on whether the virus emerged via animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak.
Chinese officials branded the report ‘political and false’.
January 2022: Leaked emails from top UK scientist Sir Jeremy Farrar showed he admitted in February 2020 that it was a ‘likely explanation’ that the virus could be man-made. But he went on to brand the theory a ‘conspiracy’.
February: Sir Farrar is called to be interviewed under oath at the US Congress. Officials want him to explain why he shifted away from the lab leak theory.
Samples were sent to the Sangon sequencing site in Shanghai in December 2019. They were uploaded to an international database sometime later, although the exact date is not known.
Three of the samples had become contaminated with fragments of coronaviruses, which the Hungarian researchers believe was due to a mix-up at the Shanghai lab.
They point out that the machine used to sequence genetic code ‘is known to be prone to barcode misassignment errors’.
After analysing the contaminated samples, the researchers found the sequences contained parts of a virus that ‘maybe one of the earliest’ versions of Covid.
Professor Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle in the US who was not involved in the study, re-ran the data to confirm that the Antarctic samples did contain the unique viral artefacts.
He said they contained three key mutations which brought the bat coronaviruses closer to the first human strain, Wuhan-Hu-1.
The mutations also match what US researchers predicted Covid’s ancestor virus would look like in a study published in May 2021.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University who is a supporter of the natural origin theory, told MailOnline the finding was ‘very, very intriguing and very, very suspicious’.
He said it was not definitive proof that Covid was engineered in a lab and released, but it signalled that coronaviruses was being studied in Chinese labs very early in the pandemic.
‘The two things that really stand out for me are there are these three key mutations bringing the bat Covid closer to the first Wuhan strain. It is very very suspicious [and could be] a signature of the ancestral Sars-CoV-2.’
The Antarctic samples also contain DNA from Chinese hamsters and green monkeys which Professor Young said suggested the early virus may have been grown in animal cells.
‘All of this is looking like a contamination in the sequencing process at Sangon Biotech Centre… Intriguingly, the contamination with bits of genetic information from humans, green monkeys and Chinese hamsters, those are all representative of cell lines used for viruses.
‘The green monkey cells are used to grow the virus and the Chinese hamster cell line are a very famous line used often to study viruses. It does suggest that the virus had been grown in cells. we can’t assume any more than that, [without] the exact dates of when that took place.’
His comments were echoed by Professor Bloom: ‘The timeline matters a lot here. If they were sequenced in Dec 2019 then it’s exceptionally important, because [China] holds SarsCov2s not discovered until December 30 to 31.
‘On other hand, if sequenced in early 2020 then they could be contaminated with some early patient samples and still concord with Chinese government timeline. Right now, it doesn’t seem there is enough info to narrow down timeline to distinguish between these.
‘All we can say is that these samples were contaminated at Sangon Biotech with some early SarsCov2 viruses, some of which appear to have been from lab-grown samples.’
But Professor Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research institution in San Diego, California, believes the sequences were from early Covid patients in China.
He said one of the mutations in the sample is found on the Omicron variant which could not have occurred unless the virus was already spreading in people.
Professor Andersen, who has analysed the sequences himself, said that because there is a missing gap in the timeline of Covid, ‘we don’t actually know the root’ of its ancestral tree.
This makes it ‘near-impossible’ to work out if the mutations in the study came before or after the pandemic-causing virus.
Other scientists say that the contaminated samples are too messy to definitively conclude they are direct relatives of the human Covid, and not other animal-borne coronaviruses circulating at the time or used in lab experiments.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘There are lots of animal coronaviruses circulating around the world so potentially finding ancestral versions of it is interesting, but this paper doesn’t actually tell us very much.
‘It’s very possible [the samples are from] benign relatives or similar relatives of Covid that were circulating at the time and it is quite difficult to prove it is a direct ancestor.’
Proponents of the natural origin theory of Covid say the virus likely started in bats — possibly named RaTg13 or Banal 20 to 52, which are the two closest relatives of the human version.
The prevailing idea is that the virus jumped from to an intermediate host where it evolved to be able to infect people before making the jump into the human population.
But despite extensive efforts from scientists in China and around the world, that animal has never been found. Both bat viruses were being studied in labs in China, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology which is at the centre of the lab leak hypothesis.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at Reading, said that while the study was not a ‘smoking gun’ for the theory, it provided a ‘possible link that nudges the accidental escape story a bit closer’.
He told MailOnline: ‘But it does not definitely identify these samples as the progenitor of SARS-2, the actual outbreak strain could have come from a wholly independent event.
‘Nor does it show that this variant, which is still closer to the many SARS-like bat viruses known than it is to Wuhan-1, is capable of infecting people, that would have to be assumed to be the case.’
Leaked emails have shown that top scientists advising the Governments in the UK and US were concerned that Covid may have leaked from a Chinese lab from the start of the pandemic.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, who publicly denounced the theory as a ‘conspiracy’, admitted in a private email in February 2020 that a ‘likely explanation’ was that the virus was man-made.
The then-UK Government adviser said at the time he was ’70:30 or 60:40′ in favour of an accidental release versus natural origin.
In the email, sent to American health chiefs Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Francis Collins, Sir Jeremy said it was possible Covid had been evolved from a Sars-like virus in the lab.
He went on that this seemingly benign process may have ‘accidentally created a virus primed for rapid transmission between humans’.
But the British scientist was shut down by his counterparts in the US who warned further debate about the origins of the virus could damage ‘international harmony’.
Pictured: The Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some believe the virus may have been accidentally leaked from
He was told by other scientists with links to virus manipulation research that it could cause ‘unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular’.
Sir Jeremy claimed in his emails that other respected scientists also believed the virus could not have emerged naturally.
Despite his concerns, Sir Jeremy went on to sign letters in The Lancet a fortnight later denouncing anyone who believed in the lab leak theory as bigoted.
The letter shut down any debate over whether the virus could have escaped from a lab. It later emerged that the leading scientist behind the letter had financial ties to the WIV.
The lab specialised in engineering dangerous coronaviruses and is the only level four biochemical lab in China.
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14, 2021, kick-started the surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China’ for a year.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
The head of the WHO insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out – as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.