New Delhi: More than a year after the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc around the world, there are growing calls for further investigation into allegations that the virus causing it is believed to be been disclosed in a Chinese laboratory. While the leak theory remains under the scanner in the context of Covid, it has emerged as the most widely accepted explanation for the origin of another pandemic – the ‘Russian flu’ of 1977, which would have killed more than 7,000,000 people worldwide.
Russian flu is known so because it was first reported from the former Soviet Union in 1977.
The pandemic was caused by the human influenza virus H1N1, which was first revealed during the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918.
The reason the Russian flu is believed to have started with a lab leak is because the H1N1 virus that caused the pandemic was found to be closely related to the human flu viruses that circulated in 1949-1950. Since viruses are known to constantly evolve, this discovery, made in 1978, convinced many scientists that a preserved sample of the mid-20th century virus had found its way out of a laboratory.
Over the years, alternative theories about the origin of the pandemic – one of those theories is that the virus was latent in an animal – have been discredited by many scientists.
However, it took three decades for the theory of laboratory leaks to gain traction. No scientific article has so far conclusively proven this theory.
Read also: Wondering how a killer virus can possibly escape a secure lab? This is how
Travel of a virus
When the 1918 pandemic ended, the H1N1 human influenza virus was not completely eliminated. It has persisted throughout the world’s population, changing its genome, until it turns out to be the cause of another major pandemic – the “Asian flu” – in 1957. The virus remained low for the next 12 years, returning again in 1968 as The “Hong Kong” virus, which also caused a pandemic.
In 1977, another epidemic occurred in the far eastern region of the former Soviet Union and adjacent regions in northeast China. But this time the scientists were baffled.
They found that the 1977 H1N1 virus was closely related to the human H1N1 influenza viruses circulating in 1949-1950.
As seen in the new coronavirus, viruses are continually evolving and accumulating mutations over time. Detailed genomic studies thus allow researchers not only to trace the route of the virus, but also to determine how long it may have been in circulation.
In a research article published in the review Nature in 1978, a team of scientists from the City University of New York discovered that the 1977 virus was genomically similar to the 1950 virus – almost as if viral evolution had been frozen in time.
It is possible that an accidental mutation would develop, similar to a variant from the past, but scientists felt that it was not plausible to speculate that such backward mutations accidentally produced a strain so similar to something circulating. 27 years ago.
Another team from the University of Giessen in Germany came to a similar conclusion in a independent study published the same year in the journal Virology.
“The data obtained is consistent with the idea that a 1950 H1N1 strain survived somewhere with few mutations for 27 years, then reappeared as a human pathogenic virus,” the researchers wrote in the study. .
A 1978 study by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences shown that the virus mainly affected under 20s – support the theory that people above this age had already been exposed to the same virus before and had therefore developed immunity.
In the same article, however, the team dismissed the one-sentence lab leak theory, stating that none of the âaffected labsâ had stored or worked with H1N1 for a long time.
Several scientific articles quote work by Russian virologist WIB Beveridge in 1978 it also rejected the notion of a lab leak. ThePrint was unable to access this post.
Why the theory was not pursued
American researchers suggest that Western scientists did not pursue the theory of laboratory leaks at the time for several reasons. These include the tensions between the United States and the USSR in the midst of the Cold War.
WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) – a network of laboratories to monitor the spread of influenza – have been established in 1952 to conduct global influenza surveillance.
Russia join this network only in 1971.
In one 2014 report titled “Laboratory Escapes and ‘Self-fulfilling prophecy’ Epidemics’,” Martin Furmanski, affiliated with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Scientists Working Group Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, wrote that Western scientists at the time did not want to offend their and their Chinese counterparts, as their cooperation was important for such global influenza tracking networks to be successful.
According to Furmanski, the decision by Russia and China to report the outbreak was seen as an early sign of their cooperation within the network.
So, Western researchers began to present alternative theories – one of them being that the virus could have remained dormant in an unidentified animal.
However, these have been discredited. Studies on chickens, for example, shown that although the virus can cause transient infection in four-day-old chickens, the 1977 H1N1 virus has not been found in chickens older than one month.
A 2006 study suggested that the influenza virus released by migrating birds had remained frozen in Siberian lakes – and the thaw of those lakes may have put an ancient virus back into circulation.
But, in 2008, researchers at the University of Arizona shown that the viral samples from the 2006 study had been contaminated by other laboratory samples.
Eventually, no evidence to support the virus’s natural latency emerged. In 2008, the theory of laboratory leaks became widely accepted by the scientific community.
A 2015 paper by Michelle Rozo and Gigi Kwik Gronvall at the UPMC Health Security Center noted how the 1977 epidemic had become a “warning” in arguments against gain-of-function research – which involves enhancing the properties of a virus in a way that makes it more infectious or dangerous, in order to anticipate potential pandemics and prepare for vaccines or treatments.
Such research was scanned in the United States after a 2012 study modified an avian influenza virus to show how it may have spread to humans.
To this day, speculation around the 1977 epidemic continues. Rozo and Gronvall, for example, propose in their article that the Russians may have deliberately disclosed the virus as a form of “biological warfare,” or that vaccine trials may have caused the virus to leak.
While the exact sequence of incidents that led to the pandemic is not understood, the outbreak is largely attributed to experimental oversight.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
Read also: Virus labs need more monitoring, even if Covid lab leak theory isn’t true
Why the news media is in crisis and how to fix it
India is all the more in need of free, fair, uninhibited and questioning journalism as it is facing multiple crises.
But the news media are in a crisis of their own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, giving in to crass spectacle in prime time.
ThePrint employs the best young reporters, columnists and editors. Supporting journalism of this quality requires smart, thoughtful people like you to pay the price. Whether you live in India or abroad, you can do it here.
Support our journalism