The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for an investigation into renewed claims that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, may have been released from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The so-called “lab leak” theory emerged as a fringe conspiracy theory last year. The theory speculates that the virus may have been accidentally leaked from a virology lab studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China. The opposing natural, zoonotic origin theory suggests the virus emerged from animal-human contact.
The renewed debate over the origin of the novel coronavirus stems from heightened coverage in the US media over the past few weeks concerning a new US intelligence report that found three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick and were hospitalized in November 2019 in Wuhan. The report contains new details that were not present in a State Department fact sheet about occurrences at the virology institute that was released earlier this year.
And now with US president Joe Biden and other world leaders echoing the WHO’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus, the lab leak theory is quickly gaining steam again.
So much so, that it is creating divisions within the scientific community, in addition to tensions between countries like the US and China.
The first COVID-19 cases were linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan located just several kilometers away from the Wuhan Virology Institute. This led scientists to hypothesize that the virus was first transmitted to humans from animals.
The US intelligence report builds on the fact sheet that was released during the last days of the Trump administration earlier this year that stated the Wuhan researchers came down “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” The new report includes details that were not in the fact sheet, such as the number of researchers affected, timing of illness and the hospital visits.
The close proximity of the virology institute to the seafood market in Wuhan lends difficulty to tracing the exact origins of the virus.
The WHO commissioned an investigation last year to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The report explored both lab and natural origin theories, concluding that an animal origin was more plausible than a lab leak.
In addition, a study published in Nature Medicine last year provided genomic evidence that the novel human SARS-CoV-2 virus resembles coronaviruses found in animals such as bats and pangolins. It also found that the virus lacked any ‘lab-engineered’ components. This aimed to clarify the notion that the virus was made and released from a lab intentionally, which at the time, was being associated with ideas of the virus being used as a bioweapon.
Lab Leak versus Natural Origin Debate
WHO’s new calls for an investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 came on the heels of a WHO decision-making body meeting to discuss the next phase of an investigation into COVID-19’s origins.
The call is also being backed by some in the scientific community. In an open letter published by 18 scientists in the journal Science on May 14, they state their support for WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus’s call for an investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
In reference to the original WHO investigation, the group claims that the report focused more on the animal origin theory and devoted little to the lab leak theory, with only four pages dedicated to the latter.
However, according to an article in Nature, many virologists say this focus is warranted because most emerging infectious diseases begin with “a spillover from nature, as seen with HIV, Zika and Ebola.”
Disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who worked on the WHO team, told CNN in February, “there is really still no evidence that this came from a lab.” He said researchers were tested and no evidence was found of COVID antibodies, and said the lab was “very well run,” suggesting a viral leak was unlikely.
While he said it’s not to completely throw out the hypothesis, “it’s a conclusion that it’s extremely unlikely and that there is a much more likely hypothesis out there.”
The lead author of the Science letter, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, commented in the Nature piece that, “I am not saying I believe the virus came from a laboratory.” Instead, he feels the authors of the WHO investigation report were “too decisive in their conclusions.” He said they should have called the natural-origins hypothesis “appealing” instead of “highly likely” and that they didn’t have enough information to draw a conclusion about a leak.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, believes that even if the letter in Science was well-intentioned, its authors should have thought more about how it would feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue. Dr. Rasmussen was victim to online bullying and received hate messages on social media platforms like Twitter over her opinions on the issue, including derogatory remarks from a neuroscientist.
The director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, strongly denied the report in a statement on Monday.
“I’ve read it, it’s a complete lie,” director Yuan Zhiming told English-language, state-run tabloid Global Times. “Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don’t even know where such information came from.”
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, also criticized and rejected the report, accusing the US of “hyping up the lab leak theory.” The Chinese embassy in Washington says politicizing the origins of COVID-19 would only hamper investigations and undermine efforts to curb the pandemic.
China has been reluctant to agree to independent, international-led inquiries and share pertinent data on COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. It took months of negotiations for the WHO to be granted access to Wuhan.
According to CNN, US intelligence officials are still investigating whether the virus was accidentally released into the public from a lab in Wuhan. This while other sources say intelligence hasn’t been able to corroborate the theory and is still trying to work out whether the virus was released due to poor handling of materials in the lab that may have caused infection.
Top US infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said this week that he was “not convinced” that the pandemic had natural origins, which is in contrast to his statements from last year in which he dismissed the lab leak theory as a “circular argument.”
As the new investigations take off, regardless of which position one may take on the origin issue, most would agree that the meddling of politics with science does more harm than good as we’ve witnessed during the past year of the pandemic.