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Indiana doctor says coronavirus leaked from lab is ‘extremely unlikely’

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Questions remain about the origins of the coronavirus. According the World Health Organization’s (WHO) working draft report leaked to the Associated Press, transmission most likely occurred from animals to humans. 

However, others are not so convinced, insisting the deadly virus was intentionally released from a laboratory to wreak havoc on the world. 

News 8 spoke with Dr. Ana Bento, professor at IU School of Public Health who explained why the spread from animals to humans is the most likely scenario.

“These results are not surprising at least from the academic and scientific community. There has been a lot of research being done on the origins of SARS-CoV-2. From the beginning–through genetic surveillance, genomic surveillance and case surveillance–there has been this hypothesis that the virus could have potentially come from bats or pangolins. So, the absolute origin has not been absolutely established as to which animal was the original reservoir. However, the viruses that are encountered in those species are closely related enough to COVID-19 that the estimation seems that it originated in these wild animals.”  

There’s a huge interface between animals and humans, Bento said. That’s why virus spillover and spread was so fast and furious. The virus mutated during the transmission process such that it became infectious in humans. Unfortunately, she adds, the particular strain the coronavirus mutated into became highly infectious in the population. 

The scientific methods also support the evidence obtained thus far because researchers investigated the origins using a process called phylogenomic analysis. 

“This is a reconstruction of the sequence of events that have been collected from individuals who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2. It allows us to work our way backwards.”

Bento says the process provides a timeline allowing scientists to trace virus origins. Strong evidence supports the original COVID-19 strain was first seen in animals and only after humans had close contact with bats and/or pangolins did it mutate into a strain capable of infecting people. This is not unlike animal to human transmissions seen with previous coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS and the H1N1 flu. 

Will we ever have all the answers? Mostly likely not. However, Bento’s message is this: 

“I do hope this report will give people some sense of solace that this was not released to the world with some ill-intention to cause damage. It was just an unfortunate spillover event because of the way humans are connected. And then there’s this global connection between countries and people that allows for something [like COVID-19] to just take off.”

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 6 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Facebook @DrMaryGillis and Instagram @reportergillis.