Wednesday, Feb 19, 2020 | Last Update : 06:54 AM IST

A natural mutant or a manmade bioweapon?

THE ASIAN AGE. | JAYANTH MURALI
Published : Feb 10, 2020, 1:05 am IST
Updated : Feb 10, 2020, 1:05 am IST

Coronavirus is so-named because the spikes that protrude from its cell membranes "resemble the sun's corona.

Earlier, an Indian student at Wuhan University in China tested positive in Kerala, which was the first case of coronavirus in India
 Earlier, an Indian student at Wuhan University in China tested positive in Kerala, which was the first case of coronavirus in India

Movies have prophesied some far-fetched things that have unbelievably come true. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), foresaw video calls and Siri-like artificial intelligence. It also anticipated space tourism, on which Richard Branson and Elon Musk are working. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) had its characters making video calls even when the technology didn't exist. The Terminator (1984) predicted military drones while Star-Trek (1966) predicted the cellphone; inventor Martin Cooper, whose team at Motorola built the first cell, had confessed that Captain Kirk's communicator had influenced him to create the cell phone. The Hollywood film Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), accurately forecast full-body scanners at airports of the sort in use today. Back in 2011, when I watched the movie Contagion at a theatre, it never occurred to me that the fictionalised deadly virus would come true one day. Strangely, fiction has turned into a reality today with the Coronavirus outbreak unfolding precisely like the plot in the American movie Contagion.

In the film, after Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minnesota from a Hong Kong business trip, she speculates the flu-like symptoms she is suffering from to be jet-lag. However, two days later, Beth is dead, and doctors tell her stunned husband (Matt Damon) that they have no clue what had killed her.

Her young son later dies on the same day. Soon, many others exhibit identical symptoms, and a global pandemic explodes. The similarities of the outbreak in the movie and the world today are mind-blowing, China is the epicentre of the epidemic in both and bats have got implicated in the spread of the virus in both.

Interestingly, the movie shows Beth falling ill and spreading the infection in the USA after catching and carrying the microbe from ''Hong Kong'' while on a business trip. As the film unfolds further, it shows trees being cut in a bats habitat to construct a factory. Most bats get killed as a result, but one surviving bat flies near a pigsty and drops a fruit which falls and gets mixed in the pig feed that gets eaten by the pigs. A pig from the pigsty gets slaughtered in a popular restaurant where Beth, after enjoying a good meal, shakes hands with the chef who has got contaminated with the virus during the preparation of pork kicking off a global pandemic.

Coronavirus is so-named because the spikes that protrude from its cell membranes "resemble the sun's corona. The outbreak which began in Wuhan, China, has since spread to every province of China and beyond. India reported its third case of novel coronavirus Monday. Two persons from Kerala who are frequent travellers to China tested positive in Kerala. Earlier, an Indian student at Wuhan University in China tested positive in Kerala, which was the first case of coronavirus in India. Over 14,500 cases of coronavirus infection have been reported globally so far. At least 300 deaths have been confirmed in China. India and several other countries have undertaken operations to evacuate citizens from the worst affected Wuhan region in China. A first person-to-person infection through an infected person breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing near others recently got confirmed in the US

The initial symptoms of the virus include a dry cough, a fever, shortness of breath and a sore throat. While several of those infected have exhibited only mild symptoms, some have developed fluid in the lungs consistent with viral pneumonia. The virus is more likely to advance into severe sickness or prove deadly among older patients or those with weakened immune systems. Coronavirus has no specific cure as it is a viral infection. Antibiotics won't help. The best way to prevent disease is to avoid being exposed to this virus.

People should wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. They should avoid contact with their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. They should also avoid close contact with people who are sick. They should stay home when ill and cover a cough or sneeze with a tissue, then dispose of the tissue in the trash.

Although we know little about the novel Coronavirus researchers, say it shares similarities to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) two similar infectious illnesses that emerged in the current decade that we have been able to manage. Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths reported in 17 countries, with a preponderance of cases in mainland China and Hong Kong (9.6% fatality rate). In late 2017, Chinese scientists tracked the virus through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province. MERS, meanwhile, was first detected in the Persian Gulf in 2012 and since then has witnessed erratic clusters of cases. Over the past eight years, there have been nearly 2,500 confirmed cases and over 850 deaths spread out over two dozen countries.

 As far as Coronavirus is concerned, five South Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan - share a combined 4,000 miles of border with China, where the virus emanated. As the Wuhan virus spreads during the incubation period, which spans anywhere from two days to two weeks, it appears that South Asia may see a surge in reported cases in the coming days. Because of poor health infrastructure, the region's biggest country India might prove slow in diagnosing and reporting new cases, and also be ill-prepared to deal with a fast-mutating virus.

 Conditions such as high population density, subtropical climatic conditions, and inadequate sanitation facilities make India extremely susceptible and suitable for the spread of the Coronavirus. Insufficient medical facilities and non-availability of medical services in remote areas make the circumstances still more ideal for Wuhan flu to spread like wildfire. It's shocking but true that on average, a single government doctor serves nearly 12,000 people in India.

 By the way, what is a Coronavirus?  Is it a mutant, or a man-made bioweapon? There is a strong suspicion that the major world powers, China, Russia, the U.S., and some rogue nations like Syria, Iran, and North Korea have biological weapons programs. A strain of any virus being researched, getting inadvertently released or smuggled out into the general population is a possibility. Experts do not debunk this possibility. The Daily Mail of the UK and several other newspapers have speculated that the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which opened in 2014 and is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, could be responsible for the spread of the virus and a prudent American newspaper has connected Coronavirus to China's biowarfare program." In 2014, after the Ebola outbreak, some reports emerged in the media that the U.S.Department of Defense had bioengineered the virus.

 A former Israeli intelligence officer who everyone believes to be an expert in Virology claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been engaged in the development of secret biological weapons for Chinese military and that the Coronavirus outbreak happened because of the escape of a biological weapon from a mystery lab in Wuhan.

 In 1918 the world was witness to an influenza pandemic (January 1918-December 1920; colloquially known as Spanish flu) exactly 100 years ago in which the Spanish flu virus, a variant of swine flu had infected about 500 million people worldwide and killed more people than both the world wars put together making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. Billy Corgan, the lead singer of famous "Smashing Pumpkins" in his blog, had lamented that the swine flu virus was not a naturally occurring disease. He finagled that man created it to scare the hell out of people.

 Billy Corgan's claim may be right or wrong, but back in 1957, swine flu virus had totally disappeared from the surface of our planet, but it brusquely re-emerged after 20 years in 1977. Precisely at a time when Omutninsk Chemical Factory in Soviet Russia was manufacturing large amounts of influenza vaccine and crop production bacteria overground, while plague and tularemia microbes were being researched in the heavily guarded underground facilities as a part of the Soviet Bioweapon program. Some nations therefore presume that there was a deliberate release of swine flu virus , giving credence to the existence of a biological weapons program of Soviet Russians.

Concomitantly, vaccine trials or a vaccine development trial going awry got considered as other plausible explanations for the 1977 epidemic. Still, some researchers believed that the swine flu virus might have found its way into the population after a lab worker might have accidentally broken the frozen vials containing the pathogen which the Russians preserved since the 1950s. In the recent past, several such bio-mishaps have happened with potentially fatal repercussions.

 In March 2013, officials at a high-security government research lab in Texas said they had lost a vial containing Guanarito virus, which causes "bleeding under the skin, and in body cavities such as the mouth, eyes or ears". They entrusted this matter to the FBI for investigation. Just a year later at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, more than 1,000 vials containing SARS virus went missing. These are deadly bio-toxins, which could become
cataclysmic biological weapons if they landed by chance into the hands of terrorists. There have also been some spine-chilling news reports of various laboratory errors, such as a forgotten vial of smallpox found in an old freezer, and mishaps involving anthrax and bird-flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the USA.

 With gene technology becoming less expensive, more accurate, and faster every year, it is becoming possible to create new and more virulent novel
viruses. We recently saw an example of what this could look like when researchers in the Netherlands and the United States altered the genetic code of bird flu or avian influenza virus (HSN1) to make it more deadly. Though bird flu has a 70 percent mortality rate, human to human transmission of the virus is not possible.

By tinkering the DNA and causing just four genetic mutations, the Dutch-American team could not only engineer a much more virulent strain with enhanced transmissibility to human beings but also transformed the virus into an incredible bio-weapon. Although the original goal of the scientists was to study how quickly H5N1 might evolve to prevent its spread better, the genetically altered strain, which resulted proved that, if released, could cause a global epidemic.

Bio-weapons may be a red herring. However, with Wuhan, some facts raise pertinent questions. The existence of the bsl-4 lab in Wuhan could be a
coincidence, but the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was researching novel Coronaviruses is too much of coincidence. Another mind-blowing point which raises questions pertains to the concerns raised by
international scientists in 2017 regarding the Wuhan lab and China's lack of expertise and transparency in handling such deadly pathogens.

We have written much of human history in terms of an ongoing struggle of "man against nature." We have cast the forces of nature such as viruses, disease and pestilence in the role of an enemy of mankind. To survive, prosper and destroy others, we have been trying to conquer nature. It may seem like we have been winning battle after battle but we have been losing the war. There must have been a mistaken belief of having won the battle by creating the Wuhan virus. But nature has fought back. Do we launch a counterattack or surrender and accept that we can never conquer nature?

— Dr Jayanth K. Murali,  IPS, is ADGP (law and order) Tamil Nadu. He can be contacted at www.jayanthmurali.com.

Tags: coronavirus, wuhan university