Science

The coronavirus origin story and the lab leak debate need a hard reset

Commentary: Chatter about the origins of COVID-19 has ramped up, as calls for investigation into the lab leak theory grow louder.

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"Where would you go if you had a time machine?"

That's a question Australian comedian Wil Anderson asks all the guests on his thought-provoking Wilosophy podcast. I've contemplated my answer to it a lot in the past year.

Would I go all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs? I don't know. I want to see a T. rex, sure, but it might ruin Jurassic Park. Especially if they have feathers.

Or maybe I could go forward in time to see if Elon Musk's dreams of colonizing Mars come to fruition? I'm not sold on the Dogecoin-led future, so perhaps that's not for me, either.

In recent weeks, I've settled on Marty McFly-ing myself back to November 2019, before the coronavirus emerged. Around that time, the virus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating in humans in Wuhan, China. Before that? The trail is cold.

Nobody knows exactly where the coronavirus came from, but history and science provide us with a fairly strong hypothesis: The virus took the microbe freeway from a bat to another species, then swerved left and crashed into humans. Or maybe it jumped on the bypass, skipping the freeway altogether, and moved directly from bats to us. 

Viruses have traveled these roads before. Scientists believe HIV jumped from chimpanzees, for instance, while the first SARS coronavirus is believed to have moved from a bat to a civet cat to people.

But this natural origin theory is not the only explanation scientists are interested in. Circumstantial evidence has offered an alternative: The coronavirus may have inadvertently escaped from a laboratory.

A year ago, CNET published its first story on this puzzle. In it, I wrote, "if the pandemic were a book we'd be missing a whole chapter, right at the start." Today, we're still missing that chapter, though we've been tentatively filling it in, erasing sentences, rewriting it, editing it down, scribbling over the top and thinking we're getting somewhere only to realize we're writing the same thing over and over again like a frustrated Jack Torrance

The origins debate has divided scientists, journalists and commentators. On both sides, there are those acting in bad faith, muddying an already complex story by injecting politics, conspiracy and pseudoscience. It needs a hard reset.

How we got to the lab leak theory

The lab leak theory, which was largely considered a fringe conspiracy in 2020, rocketed into mainstream consciousness in early 2021. In the past month, it's become unavoidable.

On May 14, a letter published in the eminent journal Science by 18 researchers called for a "proper investigation" into the origins of COVID-19. It wasn't the first call, but it seemed to reverberate the loudest.  

Its author list included high-profile scientists including Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Washington; Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale; and Ralph Baric, one of the world's leading coronavirus researchers. They weren't suggesting that the lab leak was the One True Theory, just that it required further inquiry.  

Then, on May 23, The Wall Street Journal published the claim, from "undisclosed US intelligence," that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill enough to need hospital care in November 2019 -- just before the coronavirus emerged. The WIV has long been the center of inquiry into the lab leak hypothesis, and this information had been hinted at before, but the renewed claims saw pieces published in the Washington Post, BBC, The Guardian and New York Times all examining the details. 

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden issued a statement requesting "additional follow-up" to investigations by the US intelligence community into the origins question. It's unlikely this short timeframe will enable a full telling of the pandemic's origin, but there are suggestions that US intelligence has "unexamined evidence" that might help answer some of the lingering questions. 

The increasing coverage has led to an escalation of tensions between proponents of the two theories. The discourse is increasingly toxic and polarized. Search for "lab leak" on Twitter and you'll find racism, conspiracy, ad hominem attacks, personal insults and scientists trading barbs in extensive threads where claims and counterclaims often descend into a chaos of hyperlinks and screenshots. 

Wrestling with the audience

The natural origin theory remains a probable explanation for how the coronavirus emerged. It's underpinned by scientific investigations of the virus' genetic code and a lengthy history of spillover events with other viruses. It's reasonable to assume spillover has occurred with this virus, too.

A WHO-China team, visiting Wuhan in early 2021, concludedthat a path through an intermediate host is "likely to very likely" (the letter to Science in May argues the lab leak was not given "balanced consideration," however.)

Scientists have warned spillover events are likely to increase as we further encroach on the natural world. As we push into the territories of animals, we come into contact with the microbes that live there. Sometimes, those microbes jump across species boundaries, mutate and cause disease. That's an indisputable fact.

Lab leaks happen, too. Researchers across the globe handle nasty microbes that can make us sick, like the influenza virus and HIV. Sometimes, they manipulate these viruses in petri dishes and flasks in an attempt to understand which genes might make them deadlier or more transmissible. Very rarely, pathogens escape. Another indisputable fact.

A spillover seems more likely than a lab accident to most scientists, but when it comes to the origin story of the coronavirus, there remain holes in our knowledge. Scientists haven't located the coronavirus in animals in Wuhan, and samples from markets in the city didn't point to a definitive culprit. That's another reason why virologists, epidemiologists and biologists called for the lab leak theory to be taken seriously and investigated in a transparent, objective manner. 

Proponents of the spillover theory have continued to speak of the lab leak as if it's solely conspiracy, rehashing arguments that were debunked a year ago. A discredited theory that China was making bioweapons has been the conspiracy of choice, as have erroneous claims that Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, somehow funded Chinese research into creating deadly coronaviruses, or that China had been planning this for half a decade. 

Often, these straw man arguments conflate calls for an independent investigation with conspiracy, hurting both sides of the argument. 

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Labs have been handling deadly pathogens under strict safety measures for decades. This image, from 1978, was taken at the CDC's Biocontainment Laboratory facility.

Getty Images/Smith Collection

Other arguments suggest the origin story is already settled. A recent column was headlined "science clearly shows that COVID-19 wasn't leaked from a Wuhan lab" but that has not clearly been shown. There's some good evidence for natural origins, but the case rests on discovering a reservoir species -- a process that can take years. Both sides agree the lab leak hypothesis can't, as yet, be ruled out.

Conversely, some right-wing media outlets have suggested the lab leak hypothesis is the default conclusion. This is also incorrect. In addition, outspoken lab leak advocates have leveled volleys of personal attacks at scientists on Twitter, at times suggesting they're implicated in a cover-up of the truth or conspiring with Chinese scientists. The attacks have affected some scientists' mental health. One analyst told me this week the tit-for-tats are "counterproductive" and "not a way to advance the debate." It's just not helpful.

Nor is it helpful when journalists are critical of those who may have rejected the lab leak theory and now concede it is plausible. Science is slow; accumulating evidence takes time. It's perfectly OK for people to change their minds, as long as they're transparent about why they're doing so. 

None of this brings us closer to filling in that opening chapter though. 

It's all fighting at the periphery, as if the two sides were pitted against each other in a wrestling match but they jumped out of the ring and started fighting the audience instead. 

The next spillover

There is an alternate line of thinking. One that doesn't require me to waste my sole time machine trip on a journey back to 2019: We should act as if a lab leak is true, as a recent piece in The Atlantic suggests. 

The argument here is that, from a global health perspective, it doesn't much matter where the coronavirus came from. Instead, we should be prepared for pandemics to begin from both natural spillovers and laboratory accidents. Viruses will spill over, so let's begin working out where that's likely to happen, how it's likely to happen and what are the best ways of preventing it from happening. 

Scientists are doing this already, but research has been a bit of a blind spot. When we think about spillover, we must recognize all of the interfaces between human beings and animals. Farms and rural villages close to wildlife are an obvious risk. Same with wet markets selling wildlife and meat. A virus might jump from a bat to livestock before making its way into humans, in these instances.

But researchers go out into these regions to collect viruses, too. They don't always wear the protective gear necessary to keep viruses from sneaking into their airways. They bring those viruses back to densely populated urban centers. They experiment with them in high-security laboratories, sometimes making them more transmissible. This may be helpful in trying to identify where the next pandemic virus might emerge, but it also creates another road for the virus to travel. 

Rhinolophus bat in flight

Rhinolophus bats, a species of microbat, are known to harbor coronaviruses.

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We're putting ourselves at risk of not just natural spillover or a lab leak, but something like a "research spillover," where scientists in the field could inadvertently pluck deadly viruses from bat caves and bring them to cities. Even if it didn't happen this time, it could in the future.

Science journalist Rowan Jacobsen argued this point in Newsweek back in March, when he noted how researchers from the WIV constantly moved samples known to contain coronaviruses from bat caves in China's southeast to Wuhan. "You could not build a better conduit for channeling viruses," he noted. Researchers built that microbe freeway and drove it for years. 

While scientists continue to investigate the natural origins pathway and probe the coronavirus' genetic code for clues, further inquiry into the lab leak was not recommended by the WHO-China study group. Progress has stalled. A "proper investigation," as has been called for, will require independent scientists heading to China, examining samples and lab records from the WIV and, potentially, other laboratories in Wuhan. That seems unlikely, given that Beijing has claimed the lab leak theory was concocted by US intelligence and dismissed the calls.

Can we ever hope to fill the opening chapter of the pandemic story in? Without adequate interrogation of the lab leak theory, maybe not. We don't have a time machine and we can't head back to November 2019. But perhaps we need to gather up all the puzzle pieces and go back to that point in time, before the debate became so confused and messy, so we can reset. 

That way, the next time a mysterious virus threatens humanity -- and there will be a next time -- we're prepared.