The Indian government has ordered an inquiry into a study conducted in the Northeastern state of Nagaland by researchers from the U.S., China and India on bats and humans carrying antibodies to deadly viruses like Ebola, officials confirmed to The Hindu.
The study came under the scanner as two of the 12 researchers belonged to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Department of Emerging Infectious Diseases, and it was funded by the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). They would have required special permissions as foreign entities.
The study, conducted by scientists of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in the U.S. and the Duke-National University in Singapore, is now being investigated for how the scientists were allowed to access live samples of bats and bat hunters (humans) without due permissions.
The results of the study were published in October last year in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal, originally established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, the man who tops the Forbes richest person in the world list had issued a grave warning about a potential Coronavirus-like catastrophe that could kill 30 million people at the Munich Security Conference held in Germany in 2017:
“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10 to 15 years.”
“The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) sent a five-member committee to investigate. The inquiry is complete, and a report has been submitted to the Health Ministry,” a senior government official told The Hindu.
The U.S. Embassy and the Union Health Ministry declined to comment on the inquiry. In a written reply to questions from The Hindu, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta said it “did not commission this study and had not received any enquiries [from the Indian government] on it.” An American official, however, suggested that the U.S. Department of Defense might not have coordinated the study through the CDC.
PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases states the researchers found “the presence of filovirus (e.g. ebolavirus, marburgvirus and dianlovirus) reactive antibodies in both human (e.g. bat hunters) and bat populations in Northeast India, a region with no historical record of Ebola virus disease.”
It adds: “Ebola has posed a global health threat several times, most notably from 2013 to 2016. It is a deadly disease, with a fatality rate of roughly 50 percent.” Now, according to health officials, 2019-nCoV, too, has acquired the ability to pass between people and can do so before symptoms appear.
The Nagaland study suggests bats in South Asia act as a reservoir host of a diverse range of filoviruses, and filovirus spillover occurs through human exposure to these bats. For the study done in 2017, 85 individuals participating in an annual bat harvest at Mimi, Nagaland, were picked.
The majority of bat hunters were male, aged between 18 and 50, and participated at least eleven times in the harvest. The study says the potential virus present in the bats may not be an exact copy of the virus responsible for various outbreaks.
Given the widespread challenges from the newly discovered viruses, officials say they want to take no chance on their spread and will take action to ensure all medical studies in the country adhere to strict norms.
R. Prasannan, the New Delhi Bureau Chief of The Week magazine, in his piece questioning whether Coronavirus was created in a lab wrote, "During the 1994 plague outbreak in Surat and Beed, it was found that the germs had an extra protein ring which could only have been inserted artificially. Indian scientists had raised concerns about a US biowar experiment having gone awry.
"THE WEEK had carried reports giving details of germ war reseach being carried on in labs under the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta and about a newly developed germ detector being tested. The US embassy had denied the allegations. There were also reports that the Surat germ could have been developed in a lab in Almaty, Kazakhstan."
Mr. Prasannan is one of many experts from different fields who have raised doubts over the narrative being paddled by certain sections of the media. Among them is American Senator Tom Cotton who questioned mainstream media’s narrative on the origin of 2019 Wuhan Coronavirus, instead hinting that a biosafety laboratory in Wuhan working with the deadliest pathogens in the world could be the true source.
Even Dr. Francis Boyle who drafted the Biological Weapons Act in an explosive interview said that the 2019 Wuhan Coronavirus is an offensive Biological Warfare Weapon and that the World Health Organization (WHO) already knows about it.
Sometime in the middle of October each year, the Bomrr clan in Nagaland rush to the caves in Mimi village. With a good stock of burning firewood, men and women are ready for the bat harvest festival—an annual ritual where anywhere between 7,000 to 25,000 bats are suffocated or smashed to their deaths.
These bats, the clan believes, have medicinal properties and can cure diseases like diarrhoea and body ache, and increase vigour. Now, a new study has shown that these bats, rather than being a cure to diseases, carry deadly filoviruses that could infect humans.
Filoviruses are a group of viruses known to cause hemorrhagic diseases in humans and primates. The Ebola virus and Marburg virus are some of the infamous filoviruses that have caused deadly epidemics globally. Bats, found in most parts of the world, are known to carry these filoviruses and act as a reservoir. Activities like bat hunting and mining, which bring humans in close contact with bats, pose a high risk of transmission of these viruses to humans.
In the current study, researchers from the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, Singapore and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, along with collaborators from the USA and China, have detected specific antibodies that are reactive to filoviruses in blood samples of a few bats and people participating in the harvest festival.
The study is published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and was partially funded by the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India.
He is a Principal Research Scientist at the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School and the corresponding author of the study. “Being able to study both bats and humans allowed us to detect if these groups had been exposed to the same filoviruses,” he adds.
During the bat harvesting festival, the participants come in contact with the saliva, blood and excreta of predominantly two bat species—Rousettus leschenaultii (Leschenault's rousette) and Eonycteris spelaea (Cave nectar bat).
The researchers collected blood samples from specimens of these two species of bats and 85 individuals who participated in the annual festival. They also gathered information regarding the gender, age, occupation and the number of times the individual participated in bat hunting.
The blood sera samples of bats and humans were analysed to find antibodies that are reactive to filoviruses, which indicate previous exposure to these viruses. The study found that five human samples and five bat samples had antibodies reactive to filoviruses.
“Interestingly, one species of bats had the same serological reactivity profile as humans against a panel of filovirus proteins. This observation indicates this species may be the source of human exposure. There also appears to be multiple filoviruses circulating in bats in this region, but we do not know if these viruses are pathogenic or dangerous,” explains Dr Mendenhall.
Besides, a majority of bat hunters were males between 18 to 50 years of age and had participated at least eleven times in the harvest. Previous studies from Singapore, Southeast Asia and China have found widespread evidence of filovirus exposure in bats species that are harvested in northeast India.
However, there is more to understand about their diversity and transmission. “There appears to be significant filovirus diversity, demonstrating our knowledge gaps about this virus family. Our results emphasise the need to understand filovirus ecology and diversity in this region better,” asserts Dr Mendenhall.
Although there is no evidence of previous filovirus outbreaks in northeast India, the study shows that people involved in bat harvesting were exposed to filoviruses. What led to this exposure is something scientists are yet to figure out. Is this region on the brink of a possible epidemic? “We do not know if there is a chance of an epidemic in this region because we don’t understand the nature of these viruses,” says Dr Mendenhall.
The researchers hypothesise that there is no such outbreak yet because of various reasons. The virus may have had trouble replicating in humans, or there could be ecological barriers preventing transmission to humans, or the transmitted filoviruses could be causing infections in humans without any symptoms. The researchers add that there is no cause of concern or panic as yet and awareness is what we need.
Did the novel coronavirus leak out from a biowar lab in Wuhan? THE 1976 HOLLYWOOD thriller The Cassandra Crossing shows three Swedish terrorists breaking into a high-security Geneva lab where a strain of a plague germ is kept for research. Two of the terrorists are shot by guards, but one, who had broken into the strongroom, escapes and boards a train to Stockholm. He develops symptoms on board and infects other passengers.
Did the novel coronavirus leak similarly through a worker in a biowar lab in Wuhan? The Washington Times, which is known for its CIA links, has raised the suspicion in an article quoting Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese biowarfare.
Indian scientists would not rule out the possibility. The Wuhan lab, said Dr William Selvamurthy, a former chief controller of the Defence Research and Development Organisation who was in charge of the life science labs, could have been keeping the virus under BSL-4 (biosafety level-4)—the most secure condition for reseach. So, the possibility of someone having been infected from the lab and inadvertently spreading it could not be ruled out, said Selvamurthy.
Though India has never accused China of germ war research, military scientists had prepared several blueprints and modelled threat scenarios of India being targeted by an enemy country or rogue agents with bioweapons. The DRDO had even worked out the operating procedures to be followed in case of a bioattack. “We had worked out several scenarios of various life systems being affected, and the defensive mechanism to be adopted,” said Selvamurthy.
Yet, last year’s US state department report on arms control compliance had accused China of working on military pathogens for offensive purposes. It said the US had concerns with respect to “Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat”.
China has maintained that the virus has originated from wild animals sold at a market in Wuhan. The lab under suspicion is just about 30km from the market. The virus has been identified as a virulent strain, much like any classical germ warfare strain—they were designed to be virulent initially, but quickly controllable.
The idea, as a military scientist explained, was for the germ to be released in hostile territory to disable the enemy, but the territory would have to be quickly sanitised for your own forces to capture it.
During the 1994 plague outbreak in Surat and Beed, it was found that the germs had an extra protein ring which could only have been inserted artificially. Indian scientists had raised concerns about a US biowar experiment having gone awry.
THE WEEK had carried reports giving details of germ war reseach being carried on in labs under the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta and about a newly developed germ detector being tested. The US embassy had denied the allegations. There were also reports that the Surat germ could have been developed in a lab in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
There have been rumours and reports in Chinese cybermedia in the last few days suggesting that the Wuhan outbreak could have been a US biowar attack. This, US officials consider, was an attempt to preempt charges that the new virus had escaped from the Wuhan lab, which had been in the crosshairs of the west especially after a team of Chinese virologists working in a lab in Winnipeg, Canada, unauthorisedly sent samples of some of the deadliest viruses on earth to China.
WASHINGTON: A US senator's claim that the novel coronavirus is linked to biological weapons research is "absolutely crazy," Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said, warning that such an allegation could have damaging consequences.
In an interview with "Face the Nation" on CBS, Cui rebuked Republican Senator Tom Cotton's recent assertion about the origins of the novel coronavirus, saying that "there are all kinds of speculation and rumours."
"It's very harmful, it's very dangerous to stir up suspicion, rumours and spread them among the people," Cui said. "For one thing, this will create panic, and fan racial discrimination, xenophobia, all these things, that will really harm our joint efforts to combat the virus," he noted.
Cotton, an Arkansas Senator who serves on the Armed Services Committee, recently said that the coronavirus might have come from a biosafety laboratory from Wuhan, a city in central China where the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pneumonia started, an allegation which has been dismissed by numerous experts.
Cui said that China is still trying to uncover the origins of the virus. "According to some initial research, it probably comes from an animal, but we have more to discover," the ambassador said. "I think it's true that a lot is still unknown and our scientists -- Chinese scientists, American scientists, scientists of other countries -- are doing their best to learn more about the virus," Cui said.
He welcomed American experts to participate in China's epidemic prevention and control efforts, saying that American experts are also welcomed to join the expert group assembled by the World Health Organisation.
The two countries' Centresfor Disease Control and Prevention (CDCs) have kept close communication, and beyond that, some US experts have already come to China on their own, Cui said. "There are ongoing contacts not only between the two governments, but also between the two CDCs and between their academic institutions," he added.