Explained | Is there a Wuhan connection to the study on bat viruses in Nagaland?

Explained | Is there a Wuhan connection to the study on bat viruses in Nagaland?

What is the controversy surrounding the 2019 research on filoviruses, and why is it back in focus now?

The story so far: This week, The Hindu carried a government inquiry report on a 2019 study conducted by Indian institutions on bat viruses in the Mimi village area of Kiphire district in Nagaland. The report referred to the need to ensure that studies follow all regulations, in order to pandemic-proof the future.

Why is it in the news?

In December 2019, the Union Ministry of Health began an inquiry into the study as it felt that appropriate permissions had not been taken by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) before accepting foreign funding and collaborations for the study. The study, published in October 2019, was funded by “a United States Department of Defense, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Broad Agency Announcement grant for the project ‘Bat harvesting in India: Detection, characterization and mitigation of emerging infectious disease risk’, the Biological Defense Research Directorate of the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center, as well as the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Of the 12 authors, three were from India, five from the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, and two each from the U.S. Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The government investigation, and subsequent queries, spoke of “concerning lapses” in the study protocols, and also questioned whether the bat samples (nucleic acid extracts) should be stored at the NCBS, Bengaluru or at the National Institute of Virology lab in Pune run by the ICMR, which has a higher Biosafety Level-4 standard rating.

What did the NCBS claim?

The NCBS denied all the charges in a statement in February 2020. Last week, its director, Satyajit Mayor, told The Hindu he had no knowledge of any lapses. He had earlier said the government had given NCBS an “all-clear”. The NCBS also said that it had received its clearances from the DAE, although the government’s 1987 rules on funding collaborations give the Health Ministry and the ICMR the final say. The NCBS also denied that the contribution of Shi Zhengli, known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ for her studies on virus transmissions, was anything more than the supply of “chemical reagents”. However, the study lists Dr. Shi as having “reviewed writing and editing” of the paper.

Is there a Wuhan connection to the Indian study?

No, say both officials and scientists. The Indian study looked at filoviruses (such as Ebola and Marburg), while the Wuhan studies, which originally collaborated with the U.S. University of North Carolina (UNC) and were funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), looked at coronaviruses SARS and MERS.

However, as demands grow for more transparency into collaborations with the Wuhan Institute, which was inspected as part of the World Health Organization’s study into the origins of the pandemic, there is a renewed focus on the NCBS-TIFR study. In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under the NIH, was questioned at a Congressional hearing in May this year about the NIH funding and the Wuhan-UNC studies. In an interview to The New York Times this week, Dr. Shi denied that any regulations had been flouted at her labs, saying there was “no evidence” for theories of an accidental release of the SARS-CoV-2. The WHO study also concluded that the “lab-leak” theory was unlikely, but required more study. U.S. President Joseph Biden has ordered intelligence agencies to provide a conclusive finding by the end of August on whether the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by natural transmission or a lab-leak.

Earlier this month, Canada’s Parliament voted to have their Public Health Agency (PHAC) release documents on the collaboration between its National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, on Ebola and Henipah viruses.

What next?

Significantly, the government has not pursued its questioning on the U.S. funding and the Wuhan collaboration in the case of the Nagaland study with NCBS-TIFR without ICMR approval, and has confined its current enquiries to the storage of the samples. However, the ongoing pandemic with new variations is expected to trigger more public scrutiny into future research. Some scientists have voiced concerns about a “chilling effect” in the name of bio-security on much needed scientific freedoms for research, which involves the collection of possibly infectious samples and studies on mutations. As long as the origin of the virus that was first detected in Wuhan is unresolved, questions will linger.

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