Amid ongoing probe and research into the origins of Covid-19, Indian scientist Monali Rahalkar seems more inclined to believe that the virus was not natural and there was an accidental leak from a Wuhan laboratory as she says circumstantial evidence towards it. China may have attempted to cover it up, says the microbiologist.
Rahalkar, scientist D (Bioenergy group) Agharkar Research Institute, and her husband Dr Rahul Bahulikar, a senior scientist at BAIF Research and Development Centre, have conducted several studies on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2. In October last year, they authored a research paper titled ‘Lethal Pneumonia Cases in Mojiang Miners (2012) and the Mineshaft Could Provide Important Clues to the Origin of SARS-CoV-2’.
In their paper, the two microbiologists raised two pertinent questions on the origins of Covid: First, if there were there any similar atypical pneumonia outbreaks, even on a smaller level, reported between SARS in 2004 and Covid-19 in 2019/20 in China. Second, examining the beta-coronavirus most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 which was sampled from a horseshoe bat in Yunnan province, and whose origins could be traced to the Tongguan mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan, China, way back in 2013.
In an exclusive interview to CNN-News18, Rahalkar expresses doubts over the theory that coronavirus is natural as she says, “The Lancet paper was published in February 2020 and it said that the virus is natural, and asked us to believe the Chinese scientists and support them. But there was no proof given.”
“Another paper which was also published in a very famous journal — Nature Medicine by Christin Anderson — again stated that the origin was natural but the various hypotheses he gave were not clearly convincing. Because one of his reasoning was that the next relative of SARS COV-2 — RATG-13 — this could not be the backbone to the artificial construct,” she points out.
Right off the ‘bat’
Contesting the theory of the virus originating from horseshoe bats, Rahalkar says, “Another thing which struck me that time was that I tried to search whether Wuhan has horseshoe bats as they were saying that these bats are reservoirs for the virus. But, horseshoe bats are mainly found in southern China, Yunnan and Guangdong province and these areas are around 1,500 or 1,800 kilometres from Wuhan. So how could these bats land so far away? And then, the intermediate host. So, the pangolin was projected to be the intermediate host. But the papers which were published then — four papers at 15 days intervals — also did not offer very convincing theories.”
As per Rahalkar’s own research, Dr Shi Zhengli, a principal scientist of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), had talked about a pneumonia-like illness that occurred in six miners who were cleaning bat faeces from a copper mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan, in April 2012, killing three of them.
Talking about the circumstantial evidence that strengthens the lab leak theory, she says, “Some of the information was not disclosed, they disclosed the information part by part. For example, they did not tell us that this 4991 virus is a RATG-13 in the first paper and then they did not tell us about their expeditions for three years. They said that they surveyed this area for one year, but later on in November 2020, around 11 or 12 months into the pandemic, Dr Shi published an addendum. That time, I had written a critique of the addendum because many things seem to be have been changed.”
Rahalkar points at the discrepancies in Shi’s addendum, saying, “She said that the minors have negative Covid antibodies or SARS antibodies, but in our paper, we have stated that there was a student of George F Gao, CDC director, who has stated that the Mojiang miners had positive antibodies. So, there are several discrepancies, so this seems like a cover-up which is also a little suspicious. And the low security in their labs is also one point which also points to a lab leak because these viruses are supposed to be handled at level four, but they were handling it at level two or level three.”
On the question of ruling out the bioweapon theory, Rahalkar says, “The bio-weapon theory, which has been given by Chinese virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan, is believed by a group of people, but as a scientist group, we do not want to say that directly because there are no direct pieces of evidence. Another thing is we do not know at this stage whether it was an artificial construct for it to be a bioweapon. We have to first prove that this SARS COV-2 was a completely artificial virus that was used as a bioweapon… However, I don’t completely rule out the bioweapon theory.”
An international research group named Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19 (DRASTIC), which has said there is evidence that supports that Covid-19 may have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China has discarded the World Health Organisation’s report saying otherwise.
According to the research by DRASTIC team, there are 23 labs in Wuhan including the Wuhan CDC, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the Wuhan University.
“The fact there were 13,000 samples from the Mojiang mines were brought to WIV were being studied also hints at a lab leak,” the microbiologist streses.
“The WHO team was not alone, it was a WHO-China joint team. There were 17 people from the WHO international group and 17 from China. So, it was probably more influenced by the Chinese government. Actually, they did not have the mandate to investigate the lab hypotheses as such. They have clearly said that, and very less emphasis was given on whether it was coming out of the lab, even though there was so much circumstantial evidence,” says Rahalkar.