Criticism for the Addendum: A pneumonia outbreak associated with a novel coronavirus of probable bat origin (Zhou et al 2020)

Dr. Monali C. Rahalkar

Twitter group DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19)

(The views expressed are my own and not affiliated to my institute, etc.)

Here is an addendum to the original paper, a paper which described the deadly SARS-CoV-2, known as nCoV-2019 that time.

Zhou et al 2020 described for the first time a novel corona virus which had started to create a pandemic like situation first in Wuhan, China. They had also named a virus/sample which they had collected in 2013 from bat feces as RaTG13 in the same article.

If you look at the Nature paper, you will find several comments about RaTG13, and discussions went on twitter groups, or in minds of researchers about RaTG13. Several preprints were published on this topic, etc. including us.

This additional information about RaTG13 from the original authors comes almost after 9.5 months after the original paper was published! (17 Nov 2020 (which marks the anniversary of the first COVID-19 case) and the original paper by the authors was published on 3rd February 2020.

We, at least I cannot discount the authors for giving this information so late. In fact, we and our Twitter group #DRASTIC spent almost six months in figuring out where did RaTG13 come from, its relation to the mineshaft, and the fact that the Mojiang miners had been sick with a COVID-19 like illness, severe pneumonia which turned out lethal for 3 of 6 patients. We published a paper recently, a peer-reviewed perspective article about the Mojiang mineshaft, the miners’ pneumonia, and the importance of it as an important probable source or origin of SARS-CoV-2 or like viruses https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2020.581569/full. Our article pointed out many questions to the WIV which I don’t know whether they even read or not! But from the Addendum, it looks like they read it but did not mention our paper!

Here is my criticism on the Addendum:

1. WHY does this information comes out after 9.5 months of the original article? Looking at the gravity of the pandemic situation and the relevance of the information in deciphering the origin of the SARS-CoV-2, this delay is pathetic.

None of the information in the Addendum was unknown to the authors, except one test which they claimed to have done after the outbreak. Meaning, this information was almost 8 years or 5 years old except one assay which they claim to have done it recently (don’t know how recently!).

This one: (Recently, we retested the samples with our validated enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) against the SARS coronavirus2 (SARS-CoV-2) nucleocapsid protein—which has greater than 90% amino acid sequence identity with bat SARSr-CoV Rp3—and confirmed that these patients were not infected by SARS-CoV-2).

2. None of the information was given earlier despite of repeated queries or comments to the original Nature article, by the international community. We had even written a Matters Arising manuscript about the miners’ pneumonia and the Mojiang mineshaft, all connected to the place where RaTG13 was collected. But Nature, after one month, returned it with thanks. The link between the Mojiang mine, miners pneumonia was documented by us in a pre-print (Rahalkar and Bahulikar 2020), and also was simultaneously discovered by Twitter users, mainly by @luigi_warren. Later, a Master’s thesis and a Ph.D. thesis found by @TheSeeker 268 added crucial information to the miners’ pneumonia.

There were again, no comments by WIV on this. Even the Sunday Times piece published in early July says that they did not get any answer from WIV.

3. On 23rd July 2020, Zhengli Shi answered some questions in a Science Q and A and clarified that RaTG13 stands for Tongguan 2013 sample, this was after 5.5. months of Zhou et al 2020.

4. In our Frontiers paper, we also documented that Canping Huang’s thesis, a student of CCDCP director George Gao, had clearly written that the 4 miners were tested for SARS Ab by WIV and these were positive. This thesis was published back in 2016, so 3-4 years before the pandemic. So, these results should be true! Also, Gao Fu or George Gao is the current Chinese CDCP director, and he had guided the thesis. So, the information that the miners had positive IgG Ab must be true. The Addendum however says that all the tests were negative. They have not clarified which tests they did, exactly how and when.

5. Also, the Addendum seem to suddenly give away the information, that indeed the Mojiang mineshaft was visited by miners (they call them patients directly!). I guess they were not patients when they entered the mineshaft
! So, strange wording! Anyways! So, they received 13 serum samples from 4 patients (one deceased) who showed ‘severe respiratory disease’.

For the first time the WIV authors admit that the Mojiang mineshaft miners had severe respiratory disease. Further they also tell us that they collected the sample which they renamed RaTG13 from the same mineshaft. This is the first written evidence that WIV agrees that they collected a virus or a sample which is till now the closest neighbour of SARS-CoV-2 from a mineshaft. And that, the same mineshaft was the reason, why the miners or people working in cleaning the mine got ill.

This very crucial information did not come out after 1 month of the paper, but after one year the first case was observed!

6. Also, WIV does not give any details or even the fact that there were total of six miners and half of them died. The addendum fails to give any account of the death of the other two miners. They just say that out of the four miners, one was deceased. This is height of secrecy in an addendum!! Also, they do not give any reference of their clinical data.

7. This addendum is an addendum to the SARS-CoV-2 paper, so they should have mentioned at least the Master’s thesis by Li Xu 2013, which gives all the details of the patients. It is this Master’s thesis and PhD thesis by Canping Huang, student of Gao Fu, which gave almost all the clinical data of the patients. There are CT scans in the Masters’ thesis very identical to the COVID-19 patients!

Also, they completely ignored our Frontiers in Public Health paper, which was out as full text since 20th October 2020. We have discussed the utmost details of the Mojiang miners’ pneumonia by compiling the information from the Masters’ and PhD thesis and other references. They of course, did not cite our paper in the Addendum!

8. In the first sentence, they mention ‘serum samples’ and later they just say samples. So, we have to assume that these were serum samples only. And not swabs or any other samples. There are no years mentioned as to when did they do the PCR, and Antigen or Antibody in the samples.

9. They say that they wanted to investigate the cause of the respiratory disease and so they tested these samples using PCR targeting the RdRp region, hold on, of Ebola virus, Nipah virus and SARS-rCoV-RP3.

Usually, as far as we know, the coronavirus PCR is done using RNA extracted from the throat swabs or broncho-alveolar lavage fluid or nasal swabs.

But, anyway, WIV got only serum samples so they did the PCR! Fine! Did they extract RNA first? No information given!

10. PCR for Ebola virus is very astonishing, as Ebola was not in the picture that time. And as far as I have read, a major outbreak started after Dec 2013. So, why did they check for Ebola?

11. If they wanted to check for SARS-like CoV, which was the prediction of Dr. Zhong Nanshan as per the Master’s thesis, and the hospital was promptly collecting various samples from the patients, as soon as they were admitted, won’t the hospitals have any swabs, stored? And won’t they have been useful for WIV for isolating or at least detecting SARS-like coronaviruses?

12. Next point, it is highly unclear whether they tested the antibodies of the patients in 2012, or antigens! No methodology or dates about the tests are described. Also, the same confusion about what did they test in 2020? Also, after eight years, does anyone expect to get positive results? How did they store these samples? Would those samples stay fine? And why did they store them so long, since they were negative anyways in 2012? Big Question!

13. Then comes the sampling of the mineshaft. If any way they had got negative tests for SARS-like CoV in the patients, why did they keep on sampling for 3 years to hunt for SARS-like CoVs or any viruses! And, in Ge et al 2016 they just mentioned 1 year of sampling, 2012-2013. And  9 months after the pandemic or their paper, they tell us that they did three years of sampling. On the contrary, in the Scientific American article, Zhengli Shi says that the mine was ‘promptly closed’! So, was it closed for other people but the research institutes kept on sampling! This could also cause direct infection to the person who collects the samples if proper precautions are not taken! Again a possibility, how the pandemic started in Wuhan! WIV sampled till at least 2015.

14. Most important, they just disclosed that they found one SARS-like CoV, in their Ge et al 2016 paper. When they had in fact found 8 more!!! So, why did they hide this information? Anyway they published the Ge et al in 2016, so they could have as well included these 8 too.

15. They kept this information hidden in Ge et al 2016, in any of the public interviews and in Zhou et al 2020. And height is, in this Addendum too, they have not mentioned any details of the eight SARS-like CoVs which they found in this deadly mineshaft.

16. What are these other eight sarslike CoVs? There are no ids given, no sequences given of these eight coronaviruses. Journal like Nature allowed them to publish this without any sequence information!

17. Also, they say that in 2018 they sequenced these viruses, not one virus, but its pleural, check! So, which means they also could have the whole genome of the other viruses.

19. After sequencing in 2018, in Jan/Feb 2020, they released only the RaTG13 sequence! And in Nov 2020, they tell us that there are eight more sarslike coronaviruses. They come from a mineshaft where the miners got a SARS-like illness, or it was more COVID-19 like. Still, no one asks them about additional information.

20. At this point, they give us enough benefit of doubt what they can be. These eight coronaviruses seem to be away from SARS-CoV-1, from their sequence (as said in the Addendum). Which means they could be very close to CoV-2? How close? One of them could be CoV-2 also, why not! Or it could be a strain which was modified in the laboratory and used as a backbone for genetic engineering! Who knows! With such non-transparent article what else can be said!

Last but not the least; I was watching the latest TWIV show, broadcasted on 25th November, which talks about this addendum also (after 16 minutes). None of the four experts, who are really the experts in the field, had any doubts in the addendum. In fact, from their conversation, it seemed to me that they even did not know that RaTG13 was associated with a mine where miners had some respiratory problems, they died, etc. etc. They were busy in discussing how names of viruses can be changed and how everything is Ok.

However, I should say that the way this Addendum has been written rings the bell that everything is not Ok! And we should now start demanding answers before it is too late!

4 thoughts on “Criticism for the Addendum: A pneumonia outbreak associated with a novel coronavirus of probable bat origin (Zhou et al 2020)

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