In the first week of January, scientists representing the World Health Organization (WHO) were due to arrive in China to trace the origins of Covid-19. The team membership and terms of reference were preapproved by the Chinese government, yet at the last minute Beijing denied entry to the investigators. This prompted WHO to take the rare step of criticizing China, which relented and allowed the group to enter the country this week.
The brief standoff highlights a more serious problem: the inadequacy of WHO’s current investigative framework for exploring all plausible origins of Covid-19. The world needs an inquiry that considers not just natural origins but the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, escaped from a laboratory. The WHO team, however, plans to build on reports by Chinese scientists rather than mount an independent investigation. Given that Chinese authorities have been slow to release information, penalized scientists and doctors who shared clinical and genomic details of the novel coronavirus, and have since demonstrated a keen interest in controlling the narrative of how the virus emerged, this is not a promising foundation for WHO’s investigation.
The WHO team includes experts who traced the origins of Ebola and MERS outbreaks, but critics are concerned that it doesn’t have the expertise for an investigation that would examine possible lab origins. Dr. David Relman of Stanford University, who raised the possibility early on that the virus might have leaked from a lab, told us: “Based on the scant information that has been shared publicly about the WHO investigation, it doesn’t appear that WHO has adequately represented the range of views and perspectives of key stakeholders or incorporated all needed forms of expertise.” Responding to whether the WHO team will investigate lab origins, Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the team, told us, “If our studies point to a possible lab accident, then other international mechanisms would be involved to document such an event. It would take time and additional types of expertise.”
Could the virus have escaped from a laboratory? Then-deputy U.S. national security adviser Matthew Pottinger told international leaders late last year that the latest intelligence points to SARS-CoV-2 having originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This intelligence has not been made public, and China has denied that the virus came from a lab. Dr. Shi Zhengli, whose lab at WIV has been a suspected source of the virus, told Scientific American last March that “none of the [early SARS-CoV-2] sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves.”
The hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab remains controversial. Last March, in the journal Nature Medicine, Dr. Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute and colleagues asserted that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” They said there was no evidence to support lab-based origins and that the available data was consistent with natural evolution. Dr. David Robertson of the University of Glasgow told us that “SARS-CoV-2 is just too different to the [viruses] we were aware of prior to its emergence.”
In November, however, in the journal PNAS, Dr. Relman wrote that Dr. Andersen’s argument didn’t acknowledge that unpublished viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 could have been studied in a laboratory. For more than a decade, Dr. Shi has been publishing experiments on “chimera” coronaviruses, built by inserting parts of newly found viruses into better known viruses to understand how novel viruses could infect human cells. These were used to assess the risk that such viruses could spill over into humans.
The ability to build coronavirus genomes without leaving traces of manipulation has existed for years. Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a world-leading coronavirus expert and collaborator of Dr. Shi, told an Italian television documentary last June, “In sequence databases there were sequences for a large number of bat coronaviruses that were SARS-like, reported out of China.” He added that “whether the virus existed beforehand, it would only be within the records of the Institute of Virology in Wuhan.”
For some scientists, the location of the first detected outbreak is enough to raise suspicions. In the words of Dr. Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, “the outbreak occurred on the doorstep of laboratories that conduct the world’s largest research project on horseshoe-bat viruses, that have the world’s largest collection of horseshoe-bat viruses, and that possessed and worked with the world’s closest sequenced relative of the outbreak virus. The laboratories actively searched for new horseshoe-bat viruses in horseshoe-bat colonies in caves in remote rural areas in Yunnan province, brought those new horseshoe-bat viruses to Wuhan, and then mass-produced and studied those new horseshoe-bat viruses, year-round, inside Wuhan.”
Such concerns have gained prominence over the past year and were recently explored in a much-discussed article in New York magazine, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis” by Nicholson Baker.
SARS viruses are known to have escaped previously from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan and twice in Beijing. Dr. Maciej Boni of Pennsylvania State University told us that if the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab (though he thinks this is unlikely), he would expect that “some of the early December cases should be traceable to WIV employees, family members of WIV employees or frequent social contacts of WIV employees. If this evidence is presented, it will be the first ‘positive evidence’ that SARS-CoV-2 may have a lab origin.”
What would it take to properly investigate possible lab origins? Dr. Relman said that “it will be critical to obtain independently verified, time-stamped records of sample inventories, data, lab notebooks and records, internal and external communications, personnel health records and serum samples, and access to personnel so that they can be interviewed in private without fear of repercussions.” Yet the path to such a credible investigation seems nearly impossible in the current geopolitical climate.
Several scientists also told us they were troubled by the presence on the WHO team of Dr. Peter Daszak of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. Dr. Daszak has been a longtime collaborator of Dr. Shi since they worked together to trace SARS viruses to bats after the 2003 epidemic. His organization has administered more than $100 million in U.S. federal grants to fund overseas fieldwork and laboratory experiments, including those performed by WIV, to find and characterize new viruses in order to predict the next pandemic, according to the EcoHealth Alliance.
Last February, Dr. Daszak organized a statement in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, to “condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 doesn’t have a natural origin.” The statement was drafted when little was yet known about the virus. Dr. Daszak declined to comment for this piece, but a spokesman for Dr. Daszak told us: “The Lancet letter was written during a time in which Chinese scientists were receiving death threats and the letter was intended as a showing of support for them as they were caught between important work trying to stop an outbreak and the crush of online harassment.” Yet, in June, Dr. Daszak wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian headlined, “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.”
The spokesman for Dr. Daszak told us that any questions about his potential conflict of interest should be referred to WHO. Dr. Ben Embarek said that he sees no problem in having Dr. Daszak on his investigative team: “Of course the WHO team will have discussion with the scientists and researchers in Wuhan. And therefore it is good to have on the team someone who knows the area well.”
Miles Pomper, a co-author of an expert guide to investigating outbreak origins published in October by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said that “The independence of the WHO investigation may be seriously compromised by the process used to choose investigators…. In particular, the choice of Dr. Daszak, who has a personal stake in ensuring current Chinese practices continue and who is a longtime collaborator of a scientist at the center of the investigation, is likely to taint its results.”
Another co-author of the guide, Dr. Filippa Lentzos, said, “We also need to take a hard look in the mirror. It is our own virologists, funders and publishers who are driving and endorsing the practice of actively hunting for viruses and the high-risk research of deliberately making viruses more dangerous to humans. We need to be more open about the heavily vested interests of some of the scientists given prominent platforms to make claims about the pandemic’s origins.”
As a scientist and a science writer, we believe that both natural and lab-based scenarios of Covid-19’s origins must be rigorously investigated, not only to avert future pandemics but for the sake of science’s reputation. The formal investigation launched by WHO is only taking steps to look into natural origins. That needs to change.
Update (November 2021): Matt Ridley’s latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, is now available—in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
You can also stay updated by following the new Viral Facebook page.