According to American, U.S. intelligence agencies have zeroed in on a bat coronavirus modified during experiments inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as a possible “backbone” for the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic government officials.
The virus in question is called RaTG13 and was first mentioned in the State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan lab in January. President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a three-month inquiry into the virus origin after an earlier study revealed spy agencies are divided over the two competing origin theories — that the virus leaked from a Chinese laboratory or emerged naturally from an animal to infect humans.
According to the officials familiar with the intelligence, RaTG13 is not regarded as the immediate precursor of the virus behind SAR-CoV-2, the formal name for the coronavirus.
“RaTG13 is significant for other reasons having to do with its potential as a backbone for the creation of parthenogenic chimeric viruses,” one official said. “It is also significant given the suspect behavior of PRC scientists regarding disclosure of information about this virus and the clouded and questionable nature of previous disclosures about its origin, genomic structure and laboratory experimentation.”
Steven C. Quay, a prominent virologist who took part in a State Department study of the virus, revealed in a scientific analysis made public in January that RaTG13 “is not a new biological entity but shows evidence. Of genetic manipulation in the laboratory.”
According to the fact sheet, WIV researchers began conducting experiments with the RaTG13 virus in 2016. There was no sign the experiments were halted before the pandemic outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019.
“WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the State Department said. “The WIV became a focal point for international coronavirus research after the 2003 SARS outbreak and has since studied animals, including mice, bats, and pangolins.”
Significantly, the Wuhan institute has published reports on “gain-of-function” research that involves modifying animal viruses found in nature to make them more infectious to humans. The institute researched engineering these so-called chimeric viruses, the fact sheet said.
“But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus, including RaTG13, which is sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness,” the fact sheet contended.
Emails from Anthony Fauci, the Trump and Biden administrations’ doctor in charge of dealing with the pandemic, revealed he was informed in February 2020 that the virus might have been manipulated in a laboratory.
Emails made public this week include one sent to Dr. Fauci from Kristen G. Andersen, a virologist studying the COVID-19 virus, that states its genome does not appear to have evolved naturally and that some features “(potentially) look engineered.”
So far, China has denied the lab-leak theory and refused to provide international virus investigators with access to its records on a bat and other coronaviruses being worked on before the pandemic outbreak.
One key to learning the origin of the outbreak will be to obtain records and data explaining why the WIV was engaged in laboratory alterations of RaTG13 and other viruses. According to the State Department, WIV officials altered and then removed online records of the lab work on RaTG13.