Did US-funded lab leak Ebola? Bombshell report claims virus emerged during ‘routine research activities’
New analysis claims the virus likely emerged from a Sierra Leone lab which at the time was receiving funding from the US for its work on Lassa fever
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK: A bombshell analysis suggests that the 2014 Ebola outbreak may have resulted from an unintentional lab leak at a laboratory financed by the US government. Journalist Sam Husseini and virologist Dr Jonathan Latham -- a former researcher at the University of Wisconsin, claim the virus likely emerged during ‘routine research activities’ from a laboratory in Sierra Leone, which at the time was receiving funding from the US government for its work on Lassa fever.
The lab in Kenema specialized in hemorrhagic viruses similar to Ebola, but it's unclear if it handled the epidemic-causing pathogen. According to most experts, Ebola emerged naturally during a spillover event from animals in Guinea, around 175 miles from the lab. Bats known to harbor Ebola were identified in a village where the first official patient was diagnosed but researchers never found the original animal host. This has given credence to many theories that the virus may have originated from a lab.
According to the Daily Mail, in response to the findings, an impartial expert told the publication that the hypothesis was "absolutely plausible," but raised several concerns about the authors' reliability. Dr Latham was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin and holds a PhD in virology in addition to a crop genetics master's degree. He operates a website that has previously been given a failing grade by online fact-checkers for making false scientific claims.
Bolstering their argument, the authors wrote in the report that there was ‘no indication' of an animal reservoir for Zaire Ebola in West Africa at the time of the outbreak
"The... strain’s sudden appearance in the region was thus unexpected and is still unexplained. Furthermore, the epidemiological investigations in Guinea
and Sierra Leone were inconclusive and unconvincing. There was, however, a single spillover event, which is also consistent with a lab origin. And last, there was a research laboratory nearby that specialized in viral hemorrhagic fevers. The VHFC lab may or may not have housed Ebola viruses but it certainly had a dubious biosafety record. All of the evidence... is therefore consistent with a lab origin," the authors wrote in their analysis.
The research facility at Kenema is administered by the US-based Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium and is a biosafety level-3 lab, meaning it is permitted to handle deadly viruses. According to the latest probe, the facility may have been holding or perhaps testing Ebola samples gathered as part of the PREDICT research project, which was supported by the US government. As part of the effort, which was supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent agency of the US government, Ebola and other viruses were being searched for in animals in the Congo basin.
"It is often exceedingly difficult and often impossible to establish the exact start of an epidemic and why such an epidemic would start," said Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert from the University of East Anglia in the UK. "Epidemiology only functions at the level of probabilities so very rarely can we say it certainly was this or that, we only say it was probably this or probably that," says the author. A lab leak, according to professor Hunter, "is probable even if it is not realistic."
Up to 90% of people who contract the Ebola virus, also known as the Zaire ebolavirus, die from it.The 2014 epidemic was brought on by the Makona variant. Eight years ago, there were 28,652 Ebola cases worldwide, all but 36 of them happening in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, according to the CDC. The pandemic claimed 11,323 lives in all.