Caught in the crossfire over the origins of Covid

At the start of the pandemic, scientists reported a reassuring trait of the new coronavirus: It appeared to be very stable. The virus does not mutate very quickly, making it an easier target for treatments and vaccines.

At the time, the slow rate of mutation seemed strange to a young scientist. “It really woke my ears up,” said Alina Chan, postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Dr Chan questioned whether the new virus was somehow “pre-adapted” to thrive in humans, even before the outbreak. begin.

“By the time the SARS-CoV-2 virus was detected in Wuhan in late 2019, it appeared that it had already detected the mutations it needed to spread very well among humans,” Dr Chan said. “It was already good to go.”

The hypothesis, widely disputed by other scientists, was the basis of an explosive article published online in May 2020, in which Dr Chan and his colleagues questioned the dominant consensus that the deadly virus s ‘was naturally spread to humans from bats via an intermediate host. animal.

The question she helped ask hasn’t gone away. At the end of May, President Biden, unhappy with an equivocal report he had received on the subject, asked the American intelligence services to deepen the question of the origins. The new report is expected overnight.

In last year’s article, Dr Chan and his colleagues speculated that the virus may have spread to humans and circulated undetected for months while accumulating mutations.

Perhaps, they said, the virus was already well adapted to humans in bats or another animal. Or maybe it adapted to humans while being studied in a lab and accidentally spilled.

Dr. Chan quickly found himself in the middle of a maelstrom. An article from the Mail On Sunday, a British tabloid, headlined: “The coronavirus did NOT come from animals in the Wuhan market. “

Many senior virologists criticized her work and dismissed it out of hand, saying she lacked the expertise to speak out on the subject, slandered their specialty and her statements would alienate China, hindering any future investigation.

Some have called her a conspiracy theorist. Others rejected her ideas because she is a postdoctoral fellow, junior scientist. A virologist, Benjamin Neuman, called his hypothesis “clumsy.”

A Chinese media outlet accused her of “dirty behavior and lack of basic academic ethics,” and readers have claimed she was a “racial traitor,” due to her Chinese ancestry.

“There were days and weeks I was extremely scared, and many days I didn’t sleep,” Dr Chan, 32, said in a recent interview at a beer garden nearby. of the Broad Institute.

Dr Chan’s story reflects how deeply polarizing questions about the origins of the virus have become. The vast majority of scientists believe that it originated in bats and was transmitted to humans via an animal intermediate host, although none have been identified.

Some of them believe that a laboratory accident, especially at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, cannot be ruled out and has not been adequately investigated. And a few believe the institute’s research, which involved harvesting bats and bat coronaviruses from the wild, may have played a role.

Scientists on all sides say they have been threatened with violence and reviled for their positions. The attacks were so fierce that Dr. Chan worried about her personal safety and began to take new precautions, wondering if she was being followed and changing her daily routines.

The backlash made her fear that she had put her professional future in jeopardy, and she wrote a letter to her boss, apologizing and offering her resignation.

“I thought I had committed suicide in my career, not just for myself but for the whole group that wrote the article,” Dr Chan said. “I thought I had done everyone a terrible disservice, getting us bogged down in this controversy.”

But Dr Chan boss Benjamin E. Deverman, who co-authored the article, refused to accept his resignation, saying only that they had been naive not to anticipate the backlash.

Dr Chan’s role has been so controversial that many scientists have refused to discuss her. One of the few virologists who was prepared to comment flatly dismissed the possibility of a lab leak.

“I think there is no way the virus was genetically modified or created by humans,” said Susan Weiss, co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens at the University of Pennsylvania. , who also dismissed the possibility that the virus may have accidentally escaped the lab. “It’s clearly zoonotic, because of the bats.”

Others said Dr Chan was brave to put alternative hypotheses on the table.

“Alina Chan deserves credit for challenging the mainstream narrative and asking this question,” said Akiko Iwasaki, immunologist at Yale University. “It’s not easy for a young scientist to openly dispute an established narrative.”

(Dr Iwasaki also credited a loose group of Internet sleuths who carry the acronym DRASTIC.)

“The degree to which the question of origin has become so inflammatory and polarized is mind-boggling,” said Dr Iwasaki. “The point is, we don’t know exactly where the virus came from, period. It was important to stress this. “

As she sipped unsweetened iced tea and discussed her ideas recently, Dr. Chan seemed an unlikely provocateur. She insisted that she was still on the fence about the origins of the virus, torn “50-50” between the natural route and hypotheses of laboratory accidents.

No scientific journal has ever published his article. Determined to draw attention to what she saw as a crucial question that needed to be answered in order to avert a future pandemic, Dr Chan took to Twitter, mastering the art of tutorial threads and putting together followers.

She is now in “worse shape” than before, said Dr Chan: “Now I am under attack from both sides. Scientists always attack me, and proponents of lab leaks attack me too, because I’m not going to go all the way and say this is from a lab. I keep telling them that I can’t because there is no proof.

Critics say Dr Chan bears some responsibility for the backlash.

Early last year on Twitter, she appeared to accuse scientists and editors “who directly or indirectly cover serious research integrity issues surrounding major SARS-2-like viruses of stopping and thinking “, adding:” If your actions obscure the origins of SARS2, you play a role in the deaths of millions of people. (She then deleted the tweet.)

Supporters of the lab leaks – who called her an “apologist” for virologists – were also upset that Dr Chan was given so much credit for putting the issue on the public agenda.

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said in early 2020 that they had found a virus in their database whose genome sequence was 96.2% similar to that of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus.

But it was internet sleuths and scientists who discovered that the virus matched a virus harvested from a cave linked to a pneumonia outbreak in 2012 that killed three miners – and that the Wuhan lab’s genomic database on bat coronaviruses was taken offline at the end of 2019.

Dr Chan also landed a deal with Harper Collins, for an undisclosed amount, to co-write a book with Matt Ridley, a successful but controversial science writer who has been criticized for downplaying the severity of climate change.

She denies accusations that she is writing the book for financial gain, saying she just wants a full record of the facts that will outlast a Twitter thread. She plans to donate the profits to a charity linked to Covid.

“I don’t need the money or the frills,” she says.

Dr Chan was born in Vancouver, but her parents returned to their native Singapore as a child. She was a teenager when the SARS epidemic hit there.

“People were dying from SARS, and it was on TV all the time,” she recalls. “I was 15 and it really marked me. There were pictures of body bags in the halls of the hospital.

“When Covid started, a lot of people in Boston thought it was okay, that the flu is worse,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is serious business.'”

She returned to Canada after high school, studied biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, and completed a doctorate. in medical genetics. At 25, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, then worked for Dr. Deverman, director of the vector engineering research group at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.

Dr Chan is “insightful, incredibly determined and seemingly fearless,” said Dr Deverman, and she has an uncanny ability “to synthesize vast amounts of complex information, to distill every detail down to the most critical points, then communicate them in easy-to-understand language.

A self-proclaimed workaholic, Dr Chan married a fellow scientist during a hiatus from an academic research conference a few years ago.

“We took a morning off and went to town hall and came back to the conference, and my boss asked, ‘Where were you?’ She said. “I was like, ‘I got married.’ I don’t even have a ring. My mother is horrified.

It remains ambiguous about the origins of the virus. “I’m now leaning towards the theory of lab leaks, but there are also days when I seriously consider that it could be from nature,” she said.

“On those days, I mostly feel really, really sorry for the scientists who are involved as possible sources of the virus,” she said.

Referring to Shi Zhengli, the top Chinese virologist who leads research on emerging infectious diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr Chan said, “I feel really sad for his situation. The stakes could not be higher.

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