WHO experts inspect Wuhan’s P4 ‘superlab’

In the most morbid inspection of their research on the coronavirus, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday. Nestled in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city, it houses a P4 ‘superlab’ with the world’s most dangerous viruses. This is the place that the United States, during the presidency of Donald Trump, has been accusing of being the origin of the coronavirus, where it suspects that it was genetically created or where it escaped. But, yes, without evidence.

Apart from this “conspiracy theory”, which has caused a bitter confrontation between the US and China, it is a very important place for the investigations of the WHO experts. Led by Dr. Shi Zhengli, P4 stores bat coronavirus, including one that is 96.2 percent similar to the SARS-CoV-2 that has triggered the pandemic.

Under a dark fog that barely let the building be seen, WHO experts arrived this Wednesday morning amid a cloud of international media gathered at its doors, including this newspaper. Due to what appears to be an error of the caravan, they did not enter their main door through the entrance lane, but through the exit lane, where journalists were stationed to take pictures. Once again, the confusion has made the press pounce on the entourage to ask the experts for their expectations about the visit.

THE KEY:

Investigation.

The mission had an “open and frank” discussion with the staff of the scientific complex

“We look forward to having a very productive day and asking all the questions you need,” the American virologist Peter Daszak answered from his car, with the window down. Between the usual races of photographers and cameras with security guards, the caravan has entered this huge enclosure.

Among the gardens, and surrounded by a wire fence with security cameras every few meters, the P4 laboratory is located in a modern 3,000-square-meter building and about five floors high, connected in one of its corners to a circular tower with tinted windows. According to the agency France Presse, here is the largest bank of viruses in Asia, with 1,500 strains and also another laboratory with a lower level of security (P3).

With a maximum of four, these codes determine the control measures when dealing with the most contagious viruses, such as filtering air and water, the insulating suits that researchers must wear, and the management of material or biological waste. they work with, like the guinea pigs in their experiments. As stated on its internet portal (http://english.whiov.cas.cn/Home2016/), this P4 laboratory is the result of an agreement signed between China and France in 2004, after the SARS epidemic, to combat new infectious diseases. With a budget of 300 million yuan (39 million euros) and the advice of the French Government and the bioindustrial firm Institut Merieux, it was completed in 2015, approved in 2016 and inaugurated in 2017 by the then French Prime Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve.

Operational since 2018, the Wuhan P4 has collaborated, among others, with the International Center for Research and Infections (CIRI) in France and the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, as the US also participated in its funding. In addition, it had common projects with the Canadian Microbiology Laboratory until two Chinese scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng, were expelled in July 2019 for a dark incident that, according to some media in that country, could be related to espionage. scientist or even a disturbing sample theft.

With 37 research groups in disciplines such as epidemiology, molecular virology, immunology, and pathogen and agricultural and environmental analytical microbiology, the Wuhan Institute specializes in bat coronaviruses. Its deputy director, the prestigious doctor Shi Zhengli, was the one who discovered that SARS, which originated in 2002, came from bats from a cave in Yunnan province, whose coronavirus had mutated in civets that were eaten in a market in Canton (Guangdong) , from where it happened to the human being.

Mutation risk

With this antecedent and a 96.2% coincidence of the new coronavirus with another bat also found by Shi Zhengli in Yunnan in 2012, all eyes were on the Huanan market in Wuhan, where wild species were cooked, when this exploded new epidemic in China. As most of the first cases diagnosed were linked to this fish market, both the WHO and the international scientific community accept this hypothesis due to the risk of virus mutation that such a concentration of species entails in poor hygienic conditions. For this reason, the Huanan market was closed on January 1 of last year and disinfected.

But a study by Chinese researchers in ‘The Lancet’ already pointed out in January that the first coronavirus patient fell ill on December 1 and had no relationship with that market. And not only him because, of the first 41 cases, 13 had no ties to Huanan, a number that is too high. The question is to know how the coronavirus, which is suspected to come from bats, reached the Huanan market, where said animal was not sold.

Due to the lack of an answer to this question, conspiracy theories immediately emerged pointing to the P4 laboratory, which has categorically denied them. Although her deputy director, Shi Zhengli, acknowledged in March to the magazine ‘Scientific American’ that at first even she feared that the coronavirus had “escaped” from there, she assures that none of her genomic sequences match the samples that she has stored. “I swear on my life, it has nothing to do with the laboratory,” the doctor announced on the social network WeChat, who blamed the coronavirus on “people’s bad eating habits”, since it is suspected that it could mutate into a pangolin, a protected species trafficked in China.

Although the most prestigious international virologists, such as W. Ian Lipkin and the Spaniard Luis Enjuanes, believe that the coronavirus is natural and has not come out of a laboratory, Trump instigated this “conspiracy theory” without evidence, probably to divert attention from its erratic management of the pandemic. Before leaving the presidency, he even assured that some researchers from the Institute of Virology had fallen ill before the outbreak of the epidemic, but again without providing any evidence.

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