Transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. Photo: NIAID/Flick CC BY 2.0
New Delhi: In a letter published by the journal Science on May 13, a group of 18 scientists have sought a more rigorous investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, saying that theories of accidental release from a lab and natural spillover both remain viable.
The scientists say if the world is aware of how COVID-19 emerged, it will be critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks. However, unlike many other letters published recently, the scientists do not throw their weight behind one theory or another and just note the importance of “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic”, which they say is necessary and feasible to achieve.
The letter comes after former Science and New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade published an article on Medium, arguing that the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 is a human-engineered pathogen which escaped – accidentally or otherwise – from a lab in Wuhan, China, could not be ruled out.
The letter says, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”
They said public health agencies and research laboratories need to open their records to the public and investigators should document the “veracity and provenance” of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are “reproducible by independent experts”.
This was evidently a comment on the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the virus. Under the terms of reference of this investigation, the information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarised by a team of Chinese scientists. The rest of the team only built on this analysis, which found no clear evidence either to support a natural spillover or a lab accident. However, the team said a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host was “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident was “extremely unlikely”.
Even before the WHO report was released in March this year, reports said in November 2020 that the WHO had ‘ceded’ control of the investigation to China in a bid to gain access to the source of coronavirus. The reports argued that the WHO was eager to “win access and coordination” from China but achieved neither.
This was how China was able to get the WHO to agree that its scientists would visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, where coronaviruses are studied, but not investigate it. Indeed, the team’s mandate did not include any lab investigation.
This is why the scientists say in their letter that the two theories – natural spillover or a lab accident – were not given balanced consideration in the WHO’s report. “Only four of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident,” they write, adding that WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had also commented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was “insufficient”, offering to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility.
The scientists also cautioned against the investigation being politicised, noting that there is an “unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries”.
“We note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost. We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue,” they conclude.
Speaking to the New York Times, the organisers of the letter – Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University – said they “strove to articulate a wait-and-see viewpoint” that they believe is shared by many scientists.
“Most of the discussion you hear about SARS-CoV-2 origins at this point is coming from, I think, the relatively small number of people who feel very certain about their views,” Bloom said, adding that anybody who’s making statements with a “high level of certainty is just outstripping what’s possible to do with the available evidence”.
Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, said he signed the letter because the WHO’s report on the origins of the virus spurred several of the signatories to talk about their shared desire for “dispassionate investigation of the origins of the virus”.
This sentiment was also highlighted by another signer, Sarah E. Cobey, who told NYT that she believes “it is more likely than not that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from an animal reservoir rather than a lab”. But, she said, lab accidents do happen and can have disastrous consequences.”
Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, who has been a strong proponent of the likelihood that the virus had a natural origin, told the American newspaper after reviewing the new letter that “both explanations were theoretically possible”. Andersen and others authored a paper published in March 2020 that dismissed the likelihood of a laboratory origin, based largely on the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, NYT reported.
He said the letter “suggests a false equivalence between the lab escape and natural origin scenarios”, adding to this day, no credible evidence has been presented to support the lab leak hypothesis. However, Andersen also supported further inquiry into the origins of the virus.