TRIPURAINFO

SARS-CoV-2, Man Made or Natural?

Dr. Debasish Sarma Roy

May 29, 2020, 11:42:58   

After more than 3 lakh deaths across the world, it is obvious by now to most of the people that we have not witnessed the worst of the coronavirus conundrum as yet after so many weeks of 'social distancing', 'lockdowns', or even curfew in countless areas of the country. How China has tamed the runaway virus so 'easily' and efficiently in spite of so large a population and so huge number of population migration / travel to and fro from the epicentre of the pandemic to all over the country and abroad? It is really an intriguing question that has no clear answer till date. Wuhan Tihane international airport (IATA code: WUH) served 24,500,356 passengers and saw a total of (cargo plus passenger) 187,699 aircraft movements as in 2018. As it is located in the centre of China's airline route network, Wuhan is connected to 101 destinations in 17 countries by nonstop flights. There are 32 airlines that fly from Wuhan. Now if we analyze the number of flights to major destinations from Wuhan and compare with that the number of COVID-19 positive cases in those cities, mind boggling matter manifests -

 

Name of City

(Name of Province)

Number of Flight per month from Wuhan

Number of COVID-19 positive cases in whole province

Number of COVID-19 deaths in whole province

Chengdu (Sichuan)

210

559

03

Shanghai (Shanghai Municipl)

208

536

06

Kunming (Yunnan)

165

184

02

Guangzhou (Guangdong)

162

1532

08

Xiamen (Fujian)

159

350

01

Shenzhen (Guangdong)

132

--

--

Chongqing (Chongqing Shi)

131

579

06

Qingdao (Shandong)

125

780

07

Hangzhou ( Zhejiang)

122

1264

01

Haikou (Hainan)

111

168

06

Wenzhou (Zhejiang)

107

--

--

Zhuhai (Guangdong)

103

--

--

Taiyuan (Shanxi)

102

256

03

Nanning (Guangxi Zhuang)

90

254

02

Dailan (Liaoning)

84

130

01

Guiyang (Guizhou)

84

150

02

Enshi City (Hubei)

77

Including Wuhan

67803

3212

Urumqi (Xinjiang UygurAuton)

77

80

03

Jinan (Jiangxi)

76

937

01

Shenyang (Liaoning)

75

--

--

Hohhot (Inner Mongolia)

74

79

01

Tianjin (Hebei)

74

327

06

Beijing (Beijing Municipality)

1646

587

08

TOTAL FLIGHTSPER MONTH FROM WUHAN

4194

 

 

 

Wuhan is connected directly by international flights to Macau, Hong Kong, Taipei in SAR, SuratThani, Bangkok, Phuket in Thailand, Tokyo, Osaka, Chubu,Fukuoka in Japan, Yangon and Mandalay in Burma, Sydney, Dubai, Ho Chi Minh City, Istanbul, Kaoshiung (in Taiwan), London, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, Rome, Seoul, SiemRiep andSihanoukville(in Cambodia), Male (Maldives), Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, and Singapore. Besides these there are provisions for charter flights to Denpasar (Bali) and Manado in Indonesia, Kalibo in Philippines, Cam Ranh in Vietnam, Saint Petersburg in Russia, and cargo flights by Emirates to Dubai, by Kalitta Air to Alaska and Chicago in the USA. This shows the magnitude of China's air travel market, the second largest in the world after the USA. And by the excellent (!) track record of human rights encouragement, it is obvious to all and sundry that China would not allow losing even a dollar by curtailing this huge business at the cost of few hundred thousand deaths across the world. 

 

Hence, though the Wuhan airport was closed, China kept on pouring out travellers from other cities to all over the world even after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic disease on 11 March. And what is more inhuman, it is now apparent that while China locked down domestic traffic, it pushed aggressively for international travel in ministry level, thereby exporting the virus far and wide. And to get the necessary time to fulfil this mission, in the meeting on 22 January China flexed its muscles to restrain WHO to warn the world about the seriousness of the situation. WHO described this Chinese pressure as 'divergent views'. Even then after the outbreak of the virus, in January 2020, 381,000 passengers travelled non-stop from different cities in China to 17 airports in the USA by 1300 flights, with the largest number landing in Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco. New York City was a close third. In total an estimated 430,000 passengers travelled no-stop from China to USA after the virus surfaced. WHO chief, the Ethiopian microbiologist TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus asserted in the Executive Board meet on 3rd February that "There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade". With mounting number of cases and deaths across the world, only on 11th March that WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Even after that China kept on pouring out thousands of travellers from different cities to all over the world. Only after a telephonic conversation with President Trump the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping agreed to curtail international flights from China.

 

Now we may look at the train services from Wuhan to other cities -

To

   Number of Departures per day

 

High Speed

Normal

Total

Beijing West

32

27

59

Shanghai

35

6

41

Hong Kong

2

 

2

Xi'an North

14

11

25

Chengdu

16

10

26

Chongging

38

7

45

Guangzhou

66

34

100

Shenzhen

26

7

33

Futian

26

 

26

Hangzhou

12

8

20

Nanjing

59

 

59

Shenyang

4

 

4

Zhengzhou

85

42

127

Harbin West

1

3

4

Changsha

103

52

155

Nanning

7

 

7

Xianning

58

 

58

Shiyan

13

 

13

Xiamen

 

2

2

Nanchang

 

20

20

Yichang

 

9

9

Tianjin

 

8

8

Guiyang

 

5

5

Shiyan

 

9

9

Kunming

 

3

3

 

 

TOTAL

960

 

Xianning and Changsha falls in the Wuhan - Guangzhou route, so we may deduct some numbers from the total and may take the number to be about 800 to be on the fair side. The passenger capacity of the trains varies from 1114 (CRH3Cx2 coaches) to 1220 (CRH2Cx2 coaches). Average daily ridership between Wuhan and Guangzhou alone is 56,400. In 2013 the Wuhan railway Hub ridership reached 120 million trips, making it the hub with the largest passenger volume surpassing Beijing and Guangzhou. That makes roughly 10 million trips a month in 2013. By the end of 2019, the time of Chinese New Year, this volume should be 20 million at the least.  Associated Press (AP) reported as early as on February 9, 2020, from Shanghai that millions of people poured out of Wuhan cramming onto buses, trains and planes during this period, as the first wave of China's great Lunar New Year migration broke across the nation.

 

By 800 trains a day from Wuhan, from end December 2019 to 23 Jan 2020, in roughly 25 days, average 1100 passengers a train (880,000 people per day), in 25 days the number of passengers is 22000,000 (22 million).  By 4194 flights a month (3495 flights in 25 days), with an average of 150 passengers per flight, the number of outbound passengers from Wuhan in those critical 25 days was 524,250. Now, if one adds up the personal vehicles, public buses etc, the total number would be 30 million. So, from the beginning of the pandemic unofficially in late December, 2019 till 10 AM on 23 January, 2020, the time of suspension of all sorts of outbound transportation from Wuhan, at least 30 million people travelled in and out of that city. So, the Wuhan population of 11.1 million had the possibility of coming in contact with perhaps 20 million more people across the country and abroad in this period.

 

On 23 January number of confirmed cases was - Hubei - 375, Guangdong - 26, Beijing - 10, Shanghai - 09, Chongqing - 05, Zhejiang - 05. In rest of the provinces it was between 0 to 2. Whereas in USA it was 01, Thailand 04, Japan 01. (Ref - WHO Situation Report, Dated 23 Jan.) While the number of cases increased exponentially to 67803 from a mere 375 in Hubei with 3212 deaths, in Guangdong it raised to 1532 only from 26 cases on 23 Jan, with 8 death. Whereas in Beijing and Shanghai the final number was less than 600 with 8 and 6 deaths respectively. It is always a welcome relief that fewer people were infected with smaller death rates. But whereas the largest number of epidemiological teams were deployed in Wuhan with a very strict imposition of lockdown measures in comparison to other populous cities, contagion rose so steeply there and so little in other cities, though 20 to 30 million people travelled from there to other parts of the country.

 

The "WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019(COVID-19)", 16- 24 February, 2020, lauded China about its 'policy of meticulous case and contact identification for COVID-19'. Reportedly, in Wuhan more than 1800 teams of epidemiologists, with a minimum of 5 people/team were deployed for contact tracing. In other cities also they have reportedly traced 99 to 100 percent of the close contacts by third week of February. And WHO and China jointly claimed that it was because of this they could control the disease there.

 

But, what about the asymptomatic cases, which should greatly outnumber the symptomatic ones, and their contacts? Even in the periods of lockdown and social distancing the virus is able to multiply among asymptomatic carriers and bound to resurface within short time when lockdown was lifted in the second week of April, but till date there are no sign of that in China.

 

Something does not add up smoothly. Unless of course, China knew the actual situation very well, quarantined all contacts in all other cities excepting Wuhan right from the beginning of the situation (late December or early January). In Wuhan it was left to rise up to a certain extant for reasons which are to be searched out by the sleuths, if at all possible from behind the iron curtain. The plethora of medical investigative reports which were published within a short period by researchers working on COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, and the sheer sophistication and systematic nature of the works done by different teams, it appears as if teams were assigned to test every aspects of the clinical, biochemical (including cytokine levels), radiological, pharmacological aspects at different stages of the disease.

 

Origin of the Virus: Natural Evolution or Lab Created -

On April 16 news came out that the USA government was investigating the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 was a manmade organism and somehow escaped from a lab meant to produce means of bio-warfare in Wuhan. Renowned experts in this field are almost unanimous in the decision that it is a natural evolution of the organism only, a freak mutation so common among zonotic germs. We may take a look at the research correspondence by Kristian G. Anderson et al (from Dept. of Immunology and Microbiology, The Scripps Research Institute, USA), a highly notable person in this field, to the editor of 'Nature Medicine' on 17 March which muted most of the promoters of the conspiracy theory (already 4.6m accesses and 54 citations). They have pointed out the structural and computational analyses as below -

 

  1. Mutations in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV-2: The authors pointed out that this virus has an RBD that binds with high affinity to ACE2 in humans (and some other animals), the computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal, that analyses point towards different RBD sequencings to be optimal for human transmission. Bluntly speaking, if someone wanted to develop a bio-weapon out of the human coronaviruses (H-CoVs), he would create a different type of RBD to get a more predictably transmissible germ. Secondly, Malayan pangolins contain coronaviruses, and these show strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2, including all six RBD residues. Hence "this clearly shows that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein optimized for binding to human-like ACE2 is the result of natural selection".

  2. Polybasic furin cleavage site and O-linked glycans: A notable feature of the SARS-CoV-2 is a polybasic cleavage site at the junction of two subunits (S1 and S2) of the spike protein. Moreover insertion of a prolineat this site resulted in the addition of O-linked glycans. These features, which are not observed in 'lineage B' betacoronaviruses, may be responsible for infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. But this is found in other human betacoronaviruses.

So, what we have learnt from this article in the Nature Medicine?

  1. That computational analysis does not predict that RBD to bind with human ACE2 is not ideal. So, for bio-warfare a different RBD would more likely have been chosen.

  2. Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone. (As here no evidence found of using the reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses.)

  3. As the viral genomes studied so far shows a common progenitor, hence there are 3 possibilities - either it mutated in a pangolin and jumped to human, or it has mutated in the human host after he or she acquired the virus from the animal, or thirdly, during passage from animal to human the virus has acquired the genetic changes which made it so virulent.

 

According to Professor J. Le Duc, department of microbiology and Immunology and Director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas, engineering SARS-CoV-2 "would have taken an incredible amount of ingenuity. People's imaginations are running wild". Furthermore, he also asserted that he personally knows Shi Zhengli, PhD, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from where the virus has allegedly been spread out, to be "extremely open, transparent, and collaborative". That he has no reason to doubt that "she's telling the truth". That Shi's lab has a standard of bio-safety level 4 (BSL-4), which means it has the most stringent bio-safety protocols. Though accidents do happen still it is very implausible to someone going to the Wuhan live animal market 25 to 30 kilometres away wearing full PPE suits.  

 

These are the views from the acclaimed scientists in this field. But assuming that there are persons with means to make a fool out of them, how they would do it - 

 

  1. Anyone at this era of advanced genetic research would hardly want to use a known viral backbone for a clandestine operation that can be so easily identified by other researchers. They would like to get sample from a natural host and try to make it deadly.

  2. Already SARS and MERS showing their importance in the humankind, a similar but more infective organism from a natural ancestor would be a good choice. Here comes the possibility of pangolin coronaviruses with addition of a cleavage here and a spike protein there.

  3. Experiments with human cell cultures might show that RBD to ACE2 a good option unlike the computational analyses, and some genetic engineering done to make it more virulent. Although Dr Anderson pointed out that the furin cleavage site diminishes in tissue culture, he said "I think it could still infect people". 

  4. As Dr. Anderson et al have noted that no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2. And "for a precursor virus to acquire both the polybasic cleavage site and mutations in the spike protein suitable for binding to human ACE2, an animal host would probably have a high population density (to allow natural selection to proceed efficiently) and an ACE2-encoding gene that is similar to the human ortholog". So, this is more likely to point towards some human interference at some level.

Considering all these the possibility that the pandemic was started by human intervention over nature can't be ruled out. There the question that remains to be answered is if this a deliberate act, or just a freak accidental transmission out of the lab? Proponents of the conspiracy theory would like to point towards the timing of the pandemic, so crucial to take China's number one competitor on the wrong foot while launching its very ambitious soft currency with a dream to create an alternate trading exchange bypassing the greenback.

And for the countries with much less money power to even mitigate the hunger of its people, the immediate option is perhaps to impose a COVID-19 tax on all imports from China. And to be able to do that all members of the UN may start a dialogue among themselves.  

   (Tripurainfo)

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