Last Updated:

COVID Origin: On Shi Zhengli & RaTG13, Pune Scientist Duo Say Not All Wuhan Research Open

Raising the cloud of doubt swirling around Shi Zhengli, Dr Manali Rahalkar said that the Chinese virologist did not disclose the results of all her research

Image Credits: Wuhan Institute of Virology/Pixabay

With the world reeling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the clamour demanding a probe into the virus's origins seems to be growing with each passing day as new evidence and chronological information continues to surface. While the focus has turned to Shi Zhengli, the Director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), another virus RaTG13 and Zhengli's research based on samples from a bat cave in 2012 have assumed significance in the probe to determine origins of the SARS-CoV-2 - the virus which has caused COVID. 

Now, two scientists from Pune, Dr Manali Rahalkar and Dr Rahul Bahulikar have come forth with a 'Master Thesis' which they say sheds light on what might be going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and why the 'lab-leak theory' might be real. Dr Manali Rahalkar, a scientist at the BioEnergy Group at Agarkar Research Institute of Pune, and Dr Rahul Bahulikar, a scientist at BAIF Development Foundation in Pune, spoke to Republic's Sanika Kanekar and elucidated the finer points of what the world is currently talking about, including the fact that RaTG13 was found by Shi Zhengli to be over 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2 days after the latter virus was first discovered.

Tracing the possible origins of COVID-19 back to 2012, Dr Rahalkar while speaking to Republic Media Network on Saturday, recollected that during her research she found that in 2012, 6 miners had fallen sick while working in a bat cave in the Mojiang province of China. The miners, out of which three died, showed symptoms of COVID-19 including cough, pneumonia and blood clotting. It was this incident, which led to Zhengli's research that concluded with the identification of RaTG13 - which subsequently emerged as the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. 

'RATG13 is 4% different'

"RaTG-13 is 4 per cent different from SARS-CoV-2. The people in Wuhan Institute of Virology were sequencing this RaTG13, which they finished in 2018. They had certain techniques by which they could create chimeric viruses. Some of these experiments could have led to the formation of SARS-CoV-2 starting from RaTG13. They could have another close relative of SARS-CoV-2 from the mine shaft," Dr Manali Rahalkar said on Saturday. 

Raising the cloud of doubt around Shi Zhengli, who somehow established that the virus hadn't leaked from her lab within hours of fearing that it may have, and before the RaTG13's similarity with SARS-CoV-2 was established at her own lab, Dr Manali Rahalkar and Dr Bahulikar said that Zhengli did not disclose the results of all her research and she also did not reveal results of the antibodies test done on the miners in Mojiang which turned out to be positive(speculative), but the 'Bat Lady' had denied the same in November last year. 

"We do not know exactly when the outbreak started. We know it might have started in November, but there are some predictions that it might have started earlier in September 2019 or so. That coincides with the removal of the databases," the scientists from Pune speculated when asked about the Wuhan Institute of Virology's databases going offline at that time. Both the doctors had sent their research papers to several global journals which they claimed rejected to review their paper until it was eventually published in the respected Frontier Journal. 

'Gain of Function research needs to stop'

Significantly, the two scientists presented a strong objection to the Gain of Function research which was banned in the USA in 2014 but subsequently, in 2017 the ban was lifted. Explaining the dangers of Gain of Function research, Dr Rahalkar said that it is an attempt to make viruses/pathogens more pathogenic so that they could be transmitted easily.

"For example, If Zhengli brings some viruses from the caves and develops it in such a way that it makes it easier to bind to the human cells, then it will become more infectious. Such experiments might be going across the world because it is very dangerous," she explained further.

In response to those questioning the 4% difference in RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 (that a true natural ancestor may need to be even more similar) that could be against the lab leak argument, Dr Rahalkar said, "RaTG13 is the virus that they have disclosed but there could be another virus, with closer sequencing, which they have not disclosed. There are methods to synthetically make a virus - theoretically, it is possible." 

"There should be coordinated efforts from all countries to push China to reveal the truth. The Gain of Function research needs to stop as that could lead to worse things. They need to stop with their obsession with collecting bat viruses," the two scientists concluded while seeking a probe against China. 

First Published: