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Coronavirus from a lab?

Why scientists aren’t yet dismissing the lab-origin theory of the COVID-19 virus

A view of the P4 lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Coronavirus from a lab?

Since early 2020, major news outlets and prominent scientists have dismissed the suggestion that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated in a laboratory, insisting it arose naturally. Now, a growing number of scientists are questioning that narrative.

On May 13, 18 virologists published a letter in Science criticizing the World Health Organization’s joint investigation with China into the origin of the COVID-19 virus, known as SARS-CoV-2. “Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed ... a laboratory accident as ‘extremely unlikely,’” they wrote. “Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration.”

Studies published in 2015, 2016, and 2017 confirm that a research team led by Shi Zhengli at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were developing novel coronavirus strains using a mixture of bat and SARS-associated viruses. One of these coronaviruses could have infected a lab worker, making the lab-origin theory plausible. According to a recently disclosed U.S. intelligence report, three workers at WIV were hospitalized in November 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.”

The virologists who wrote the Science letter aren’t alone in objecting to the WHO-China investigation. A global team of viral experts submitted open letters to WHO in March and April calling for a re-investigation. “Nothing [the Chinese] have said holds water,” one of the signers, Milton Leitenberg, a biological weapons expert at the University of Maryland, told me. A statement released in late March by the U.S. State Department and backed by 13 additional countries said the WHO-China investigation was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data samples.” Even WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, admitted the report’s data was incomplete.

Some experts have refused to dismiss the lab-origin theory. David Relman, a medical researcher at Stanford University, wrote a November 2020 opinion piece in PNAS arguing researchers couldn’t rule out the lab-leak scenario. In June 2020, Leitenberg detailed eight pieces of circumstantial evidence for the lab-emergence theory in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Other experts who have defended the lab-emergence theory include biotech entrepreneur Yuri Deigin, urologist Alejandro Sousa, and microbiologist Rossana Segreto.

Letters published in The Lancet and Nature Medicine early in the pandemic promoted the natural-origin theory. The five virologists who authored the Nature Medicine piece wrote, “The evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus.” The Lancet piece labeled any theories suggesting COVID-19 did not originate naturally as “conspiracy theories.”

But Peter Daszak, who coordinated the Lancet letter, has financial ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak is president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization that has partnered with WIV since 2004 to study coronaviruses in Chinese bats. Between 2014 and 2019, WIV received $598,000 from EcoHealth Alliance.

China has also been suspiciously uncooperative. Chinese officials refuse to release WIV’s research records, and they deleted over 300 WIV studies from the web. “And of course they arrested people who tried to report in the first week or two, citizen bloggers and vloggers,” added Leitenberg. In addition, no one can find an animal infected with the original virus, which could explain how it jumped to humans, despite Chinese authorities testing tens of thousands of animals.

While we still don’t know whether the virus first infected humans in a laboratory or in nature, many scientists agree the evidence is insufficient to rule out a lab origin.

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.


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