A health association in France is seeking to force the health minister to “explain the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus”, even as scientists have not reached a consensus on how the virus began to infect humans.
Citizens’ health association l’Union Nationale des Associations Citoyennes de Santé (UNACS) is demanding that Health Minister Olivier Véran explain the origins of the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
This group, which is based in Lisieux in Calvados, reportedly believes a widely contested theory that the virus emerged from the French-Chinese P4 laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the first epicentre of the new virus.
It has asked the Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest administrative court) to investigate and take on its case.
Emmanuel Ludot, lawyer for the association, has stated: “It is today acknowledged that the P4 laboratory was researching emerging infectious diseases, especially coronaviruses. Did the Chinese fail in their mission?
“They were obliged to update France regularly on how the research was progressing, and to provide an annual report to the World Health Organisation (WHO), on how the laboratory was working. This was never done.”
He added that the association had contacted politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, to write to Mr Véran directly to ask the question. While this was done, the group did not receive an answer. This led them to escalate the issue to the Conseil d’Etat.
Jacques Bessin, president of the group and known for his campaigning against mandatory vaccination, said: “We want to hear the minister on this subject, because we have information [about it ourselves].”
Mr Bessin denied accusations of conspiracy theories.
He said: “When we ask an annoying question, we are always accused of being conspiracy theorists. That is too easy. I am only asking for one thing: that our leaders tell us the truth. As a citizen, we have the right to know where this virus started.”
An announcement from the Conseil d’Etat is expected within the next few days.
Major scientific disagreement
Scientists worldwide currently do not agree on the exact way that the SARS-Cov-2 virus managed to jump from animal to human.
Theories include that it jumped from an animal (the current consensus is that it came from a bat) to humans, and that it came out of a lab in Wuhan, China.
Although the animal-to-human transmission is considered the most likely in general, the laboratory theory has not been totally discredited.
The WHO has been investigating the issue and on Friday October 30 had an online meeting with Chinese scientists to discuss the topic. The WHO is still hoping to visit in person to continue investigations when the health situation allows.
Currently, the WHO has said that there is only one certainty: that the virus jumped to humans from bats. It is still not clear exactly how this happened.
Some experts in France have not ruled out the theory that the virus was man-made.
Alexandre Hassanin, researcher at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (MNHN), told FranceInfo: “An epidemic cannot start naturally in Wuhan. It doesn’t make geographical sense. To explain it, humans must have intervened at some point.”
The researcher believes that there is evidence pointing to the fact that the virus was held in the laboratory in Wuhan, which specialised in researching bats, and which held a number of viruses in its collection, including one that has reportedly been identified as 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2.
An accident in the lab may have caused the novel coronavirus to escape, some suggest.
But many scientists disagree with this.
Etienne Decroly, research director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) at the university of Aix-Marseille, said: “The ‘natural theory’ is most probable.
“Based on what we know about other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, is that the crossing of the species barrier does not occur directly from bats to humans, but that the virus passes through an intermediate host.”
Serge Morand, director of research at the CNRS and based in Thailand, explained that he had worked with Chinese researchers, and had tested “many animals...in markets, farms, wild, domesticated [and] confiscated”. Yet, he said: “We have not yet found the intermediary animal.”
Dr Decroly added: “The samples that were collected at the Wuhan market - which was the initial hypothesis - did not allow us to identify this intermediary.”
For several months, an animal, the pangolin, has been considered the most probable intermediary, although this has not been proven conclusively.
International studies from March and May this year, published in the journals Biology, Nature and mSphere, showed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was 91% identical to a coronavirus identified in the Javanese pangolin.
The pangolin is sometimes sold illegally in China for use in pharmaceuticals or to be eaten.
Alexandre Hassanin, researcher at the MNHN and specialist in the evolution of species, especially bats, said: “One pangolin may have been contaminated in its natural environment and then contaminated others in cages.” The virus may then have jumped from the animal to its human captors.
However scientists dispute whether this virus can be evidenced as being the intermediary between the virus seen in bats, and that now seen in humans.
Other scientific tests are now considering other leads, such as considering if the virus may have spread to humans through a type of raccoon, which is farmed for its fur. This remains a theory.
Overall, many studies have concluded that the virus was not created artificially.
A study from Nature, published after an international study in March, said: “Our analyses clearly show that the SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory creation, or a deliberately-manipulated virus. It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 appeared after manipulation in a laboratory.”
This was supported by another study that appeared in the journal The Lancet, by researcher David Robertson, at the virus research centre at the University of Glasgow.
He said: “The SARS-CoV-2 is unlike anything we have seen before. It is highly unlikely that someone created it; it is not assembled from pieces we know.”
Laboratories in Wuhan have denied all accusations of having created the virus artificially, or of any kind of accident occurring.
The director of the National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Yuan Zhiming, has categorically denied that his laboratories are the source of the epidemic, and said that the laboratories are all carefully protected with layers of safety procedures, including air filtration, sterilisation, video surveillance, and regular tests.
He told Chinese public television CCTV in July: "There has never been any leakage of pathogens or human contamination.”