by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Rico Shen/WikiCommons/CC

LAB LEAK THEORISTS seized upon a suspected case of contamination at Academia Sinica in Taiwan earlier this month in order to bolster claims that COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan and was of manmade origin. Nevertheless, such claims are spurious and disregard many details of what took place in Taiwan. 

In particular, a technician working at an Academia Sinica P-3 laboratory in Nangang was found to have tested positive for COVID-19 after suddenly losing her sense of smell and taste, with subsequent tests returning a positive result. This was Taiwan’s first COVID-19 case in more than a month, with Taiwan having gone through more than two full fourteen-day incubation cycles of COVID-19. 

As a result, before this case, it was thought that transmission chains of COVID-19 in Taiwan may have all been found and eradicated. However, the case raised fears that there could be undetected transmission chains of COVID-19 that went unnoticed until now. 

None of the woman’s contacts tested positive for COVID-19, with 269 contacts having tested negative. 105 were placed in home isolation, 34 were put in self-health management, and 340 were asked to monitor their health. The woman’s partner also did not test positive for COVID-19, which proves highly unusual. Over 700 tested in the neighborhood were also all found to be negative for COVID-19. 

Genetic testing results later showed that the woman was infected by strains found in samples at the laboratory. Consequently, it is suspected that the woman was infected with COVID-19 while handling lab samples, something that lab leak hypothesis proponents have seized upon to claim that this could also have taken place in China. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo credit: Ureem2805/WikiCommons/CC

Particular scrutiny has hinged upon the fact that the technician was bitten twice by lab rats. Cases of animal to human transmission are rare, but lab leak proponents often believe that this was what took place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, involving efforts by the lab to collect bat samples for study. 

One notes that the lab leak hypothesis is politically expedient at present, in an age characterized by rising tensions between the US and China, in allowing countries that have bungled their handling of COVID-19 pin the blame on China. China has not helped matters by being less than transparent in its response to the early COVID-19 outbreak, which believers have taken to mean confirmation of their claims, never mind that China generally reacts with cover-ups to most government missteps or responses to natural disasters.

Yet it proves interesting to note that, even as rising US-China tensions has led to strengthened support for Taiwan, Taiwan is still frequently thought of in the same frame as China. And so, a possible lab leak in Taiwan adds weight to these claims about China. 

What has been disregarded in many lab leak proponents’ claims, leveraging on the incident in Taiwan, is that the woman was bitten by rats with the Alpha and Gamma variants, but was thought to have the Delta variant. Though she reported the incident to her superiors, her superiors did not pass on this information to upper-level staff, The laboratory was also found to have lacking training for new staff, as well as failure to carry out proper procedures for removing medical safety equipment. 

One possibility that has been raised is that PCR testing detected RNA fragments already destroyed by alcohol, due to its sensitivity. This possibility was raised by Sytwu Huey-Kang, the deputy director of the National Health Research Institute and head of the Nangang lab. Nevertheless, one does not expect this possibility to be readily embraced by lab leak hypothesis advocates. 

Indeed, advocates of the lab leak hypothesis have sometimes put the cart before the horse in terms of their analysis, such as claiming it to be suspicious that there was an institute of virology in Wuhan, to begin with. Of course, many cities with natural science universities have virology institutes, both in China and in western contexts, and Wuhan is a major metropolis in China. Nevertheless, this conspiratorial claim is leveraged on by lab leak hypothesis proponents because this is what they prefer to believe, rather than what is reality. 

Most importantly, lab leaks are far from the realm of impossible, as events in Taiwan go to show. Yet the possibility of a lab leak is a wholly disconnected event from the possibility of COVID-19 somehow being a human-engineered creation. The fact that lab leaks can happen hardly proves that COVID-19 was a lab-made creation at the hands of Chinese scientists, as many lab leak proponents believe, in that neither were the variants being handled in Nangang of Taiwanese invention. This, too, is expected to be passed over by lab leak theorists.

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