Wuhan lab leak 'more than likely' as biological weapons expert exposes 'change in view'

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Boris Johnson discusses Wuhan lab theory

The assertion was made by former British Army Officer Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who has been submitting evidence to the Government as it prepares to revise its biosecurity strategy. On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johson told the House of Commons that UK policy needed to be updated to better protect against the risks of viral spillover from animal populations and laboratory leaks. The updated strategy will also look to mitigate against the threat of biological attacks by terrorists or hostile nations, as well as the problems that will arise from the development of antimicrobial resistance among bacterial populations.

On the subject of the lab leak theory, Colonel de Bretton-Gordon is reported to have told the Telegraph that he believes “the official view [of the Government] is that it is as likely as anything else to have caused the pandemic”.

He added: “A lot of people like myself think it is more likely. I think attitudes have changed a little bit. The zoonotic transfer theory just didn’t make sense.

“There is a huge amount of concern about coming out publicly, but behind closed doors, most people think it’s a lab leak.

“And they are coming round to the fact that even if they don’t agree with that, they must accept it’s likely, and they must make sure the policies are in place to stop it.”

A Chinese lab and Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (left) said it is (Image: Getty / Mirrorpix)

The Wuhan Institute of Virology

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, near where COVID-19 arose, is at the heart of the lab leak theory (Image: Creative Commons / Ureem2805)

The lab leak hypothesis — which is typically focussed on the activities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, close to where COVID-19 was first detected — is controversial.

Most scientists agree that it is more likely that SARS‑CoV‑2 was “zoonotic”, having jumped over to humans from an animal population, with bats being a prime candidate given the similarities between our Covid and those coronaviruses found in bats.

As the Cabinet Office noted in their call for evidence for the biological security strategy, “zoonoses are a major pathway by which an emerging pathogen could arise”.

In fact, around 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of emerging and infectious diseases have their origins in animal populations — and the UK has seen at least 22 outbreaks of exotic animal diseases in the last two decades alone.

However, the problem around establishing the origins of COVID-19 lies at present in a pure lack of evidence — with scientists currently unable to completely rule out either the lab leak or zoonotic hypotheses.

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An infographic on Covid in the UK

Colonel de Bretton-Gordon has called for measures to stop another pandemic like COVID-19 (Image: Express.co.uk)

An infographic about the end of UK Covid rules

Many remaining Covid rules are being phased out in the UK, starting tomorrow (Image: Express.co.uk)

The origin-in-bats theory was bolstered last week by the discovery of three new coronaviruses in bats living in caves in northern Laos that have unprecedented similarities to early strains of Covid that began the pandemic.

In contrast, the lab leak theory has recently attracted attention thanks to a sample of Antarctic soil, collected back in late 2018–2019, that appears to have been contaminated with a unique and possibly ancestral viral variant derived from hamster or monkey cell lines.

The mix-up happened during processing at the Sangon Biotech sequencing facility in Shanghai, which is used by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sometime in late 2019 or early 2020 — although the timing is uncertain.

If the former, the virus could predate the emergence of Covid in Wuhan, whereas the latter case is more likely to represent traces from an early experiment to understand the outbreak.

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Caves in Northern Laos

Last week, three new bat coronaviruses similar to SARS‑CoV‑2 were found in caves in Laos (Image: Pasteur Institute)

Colonel de Bretton-Gordon is said to have argued to the Government that the UK must put measures in place now to help reduce the risk of another pandemic like COVID-19.

Virus escape from laboratories is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Notable UK cases over the past few decades include the accidental release of Foot and Mouth disease to four farms near a facility in Surrey in 2007 and the death of medical photographer Janet Parker who contracted smallpox from a laboratory based in the same building as her workplace at the University of Birmingham Medical School in 1978.

Alongside accidental leaks are the fear of deliberately caused outbreaks.

In a call published last month, the Cabinet Office said: “The WHO assesses that dual-use research, where life science research is capable of being misapplied to do harm, has substantially increased in the past two decades.

“There are large gaps in international oversight mechanisms for dual-use research.”

According to Colonel de Bretton-Gordon, current biosecurity measures against outbreaks are in “a shocking state”, with inadequate regulations and monitoring in place.

The expert, who also lectures in disaster management, has said that he supports the implementation of biosurveillance sensors in key locations like transit hubs to detect the presence of pathogens in the environment.

He added: “If we had all our biolabs networked with a surveillance system, we could detect a lab leak as soon as it happened.

“If you’d had detectors at stations and airports in Wuhan, you could have prevented about four million journeys in that first week. With that kind of system, you could stop a lab leak turning into an epidemic, turning into a pandemic.”



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