The Lancet Commission is the latest to highlight how seeking the truth has come second to other considerations
The Lancet Commission into “lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic”, written by 40 scientists and public health experts, and chaired by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, has concluded that “the origin of the virus remains unknown” and that “both natural and laboratory spillovers are in play and need further investigation”.
This conclusion matters because in recent months there has been a determined attempt to shut down all curiosity about the origin of the pandemic. The media has been flooded with claims from a small number of virologists that the source of the virus was definitely an infected animal on sale in a market in Wuhan.
Yet no such infected animal has been found in the market or elsewhere, despite the testing of 80,000 animals by Chinese investigators as well as several independent searches for the virus in animals across China and Southeast Asia. In the absence of evidence for a natural spillover of the virus from animals, it is likely that the centrally located market with its vast retail space was the site of an early “superspreader” event among people.
The Sachs commission points out that, by contrast, a great many related viruses were collected from bats and engineered by a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in collaboration with US partners in the years leading up to the outbreak. That simple fact puts the Wuhan lab under suspicion, as the Sachs commission says.
Further, SARS-CoV-2 contains a dangerous feature called a furin cleavage site in its spike gene that is found in no other virus of this kind (the sarbecoviruses). Many scientists admitted early in the pandemic to being baffled as to how it could have acquired this feature naturally yet with minimal other mutations in its spike gene. Last year a document surfaced showing that scientists in Wuhan and elsewhere were in 2018 considering inserting exactly such a furin cleavage site into newly discovered sarbecoviruses to test their virulence in human cells.
Bizarrely, headlines in the media have reported that the Sachs commission thinks the virus might have been synthesised in an American lab. This is not what the commission says. The key passage reads: “Independent researchers have not yet investigated the US laboratories engaged in the laboratory manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses, nor have they investigated the details of the laboratory research that had been underway in Wuhan”. But consciously or not the misreporting closely echoes Chinese government misinformation, which has tried to imply that US military labs created SARS-CoV-2 and infected Wuhan during an athletic tournament held there in October 2019.
This is highly unlikely for three reasons. First, there was no US outbreak before Wuhan; second, by far the biggest haul of sarbecoviruses from bats was held in Wuhan; third, there are no wild sarbecoviruses in the Americas because they live in horseshoe bats and there are no horseshoe bats in the Americas. The point Sachs’s team is making is that the technology used in Wuhan to create “chimeric” (hybrid) sarbecoviruses and insert material into their genomes originated in the University of North Carolina with other coronaviruses, and it would be nice, to put it mildly, if US researchers who collaborated with Wuhan were a little more forthcoming about what they know.
The Sachs commission makes the crucial point that “no independent, transparent, and science-based investigation has been carried out regarding the bioengineering of SARS-like viruses that was underway before the outbreak of COVID-19. The laboratory notebooks, databases, email records, and samples of institutions involved in such research have not been made available to independent researchers.”
Pause to notice how shocking this is. Around 20 million people are dead because of a virus new to the human species. A strong possibility is that it originated in laboratory research that was going on in the city where it started (more than anywhere else in the world). Yet the lab notebooks and databases from that lab have never been made available, and many western scientists and politicians are not even prepared to criticise the Chinese government over this lack of cooperation.
The world cannot and must not shrug its shoulders and say: we may never know how it happened and let’s not rock the boat of international relations by trying to find out. Yet the reason that prominent western scientists gave in private emails in 2020 for not wanting to discuss a possible lab origin of the virus was that it might do harm to “international harmony”. What happened to seeking the truth?