A year ago, the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic might have been caused by a laboratory accident was denounced as a conspiracy theory by the world’s leading journals, scientists and reputable media. But the origin of the virus, which now has millions of lives on the conscience, remains a mystery – and the assumption that it escaped from a laboratory in China has now become a topic of discussion that apparently no longer exists lets the world create.
Biologenpromis in “Science”
In one Letter in the renowned journal “Science” 18 prominent biologists – including the world’s leading coronavirus researcher – now support the call for a new investigation of all possible origins of the virus and urge China’s laboratories and authorities to “open their records for independent analysis.” “We have to take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory transmissions seriously until we have enough data,” the scientists write.
The letter, lead by microbiologist David Relman of Stanford University and virologist Jesse Bloom of the University of Washington, is aimed at a recent study jointly carried out by the World Health Organization and China on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 who concluded that a bat virus was likely to have entered humans via an intermediate animal and that a laboratory accident was “extremely unlikely”.
According to the authors of the “Science” letter, this conclusion is not scientifically justified, as no trace was found of how the virus first spread to humans – and at the same time the possibility of a laboratory accident was only considered superficially. Only a handful of the total of 313 pages of the WHO report on the origins of COVID-19 and its appendices are devoted to the subject.
Viruses escape from laboratories
Marc Lipsitch, a renowned Harvard University epidemiologist who was among the signatories of the letter, says he had not commented on the origin of the virus until recently and instead focused on improving the design of epidemiological studies and vaccine trials – at Part because the debate about laboratory theory has become so controversial. “I stayed out of it because I was busy dealing with the consequences of the pandemic and not its origins,” he says. “But if WHO comes out with a report making a flimsy claim about an important issue … then it’s worth speaking out.”
Some of the signatories to the letter, including Lipsitch and Relman, have in the past called for a closer review of so-called gain-of-function research, which involves genetically altering viruses to make them more infectious or virulent. In the USA, China and other countries it was already before have come to such laboratory accidents. Such experiments to manipulate pathogens were also carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), China’s leading center for research into bat viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2. Some see the fact that COVID-19 first showed up in the same city this lab is located in as an indication that a lab accident could be to blame. Lipsitch estimated the risk of a pandemic caused by an accidental release from a high-security lab at 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 per year, and warns that the spread of such labs around the globe is a major concern.
Even if Chinese scientists have emphasized that no such leak has occurred in this case, the authors of the “Science” letter say that this can only be ascertained through an independent investigation. “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, involving broad expertise, conducted under independent supervision, and responsibly managed to minimize the effects of conflicts of interest,” they write. “Both public health authorities and research laboratories need to make their records available to the public. Scientists should document the veracity and origin of the data, based on which analysis and conclusions can be drawn.”
Data output “not acceptable”
The prominent Chinese scientist Shi Zhengli, WIV research director for emerging diseases and widely known as an expert on bat viruses, announced by email that the “suspicions” in the “Science” letter were “inappropriate” and could even lead to it that the world’s ability to respond to pandemics would be harmed. “That is definitely not acceptable,” said Shi, who is nicknamed “Batwoman” in the media, about the biologists’ request to see the records of their laboratory. “Who can provide evidence that doesn’t exist?”
“It is really sad to read this ‘letter’ written by these 18 prominent scientists,” said Shi in her email. “The hypothesis of a laboratory leak is based solely on the fact that it is a laboratory that has long been working on bat coronaviruses, which are phylogenetically related to SARS-CoV-2.” These kinds of claims will “definitely damage the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists working on novel viruses derived from the animal world.” These carry a potential risk of spillover for mankind. “So that will [unsere] Weakened ability to prevent the next pandemic. ”
The discussion about the lab leak hypothesis has already become highly political. In the United States, she received strong support from Republicans and conservative media representatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The resulting polarization had a deterrent effect on science, whereupon it was reluctant to devote itself to the topic, says Relman.
“Fair striving for clarity”
“We felt motivated to say something because science does not do justice to what it can be, namely to be a fair, strict and open endeavor to gain more clarity about something,” says the microbiologist. “For me, part of the goal was to create a safe space for other scientists to speak for themselves.”
Ideally, this is a “relatively uncontroversial call to be as clear as possible when it comes to testing various possible hypotheses for which we have little data,” says Megan Palmer, Stanford University biosafety researcher who wrote the letter has not signed. “When the political side of an issue is complex and much is at stake, a warning from prominent experts can be exactly what it takes to force others to think more carefully.”
That stance also endorsed Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who served as a bio-defense expert in the White House of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The letter, he says, “is balanced, well-written, and accurately reflects the opinion of all the astute epidemiologists and scientists I know. If I had been asked, I would have signed it myself.”
Not the first call – but with a high degree of seriousness
The letter echoes some of the concerns of an earlier call for a new investigation published in the Wall Street Journal by 26 policy analysts and scholars who called for a closer look at the WIV, arguing that “the [WHO]-Team did not have the mandate, independence or necessary access “to conduct a full and unqualified investigation.
But this group was mostly made up of lesser known personalities. The letter was therefore rejected by established virologists on the grounds that the signatories lacked the relevant expertise. “It’s hard to find someone with relevant experience who’s signed,” tweeted Kristian Andersen, an immunologist and virus expert at the Scripps Research Institute, who himself believes the evidence available suggests a natural origin for COVID-19.
With this new letter, such a rejection will no longer be possible. Because among the signatories are celebrities like Akiko Iwasaki, a Yale immunologist who has discovered important findings about the reaction of the immune system to SARS-CoV-2, or Ralph Baric, virologist at the University of North Carolina, who is the world’s leading authority the area of coronaviruses applies. Baric himself pioneered techniques for the genetic manipulation of such viruses – and these gain-of-function methods were also used at the WIV.
How is China doing?
The new letter is also gaining in importance through its publication in “Science”, one of the most renowned specialist journals in the world. The choice of location, says Relman, was important. Some of the co-authors would have told him, “I’ll go along, but I don’t want to be part of an open letter to the world – or an Op-Ed in the New York Times.” That is not how the signatories see themselves. They are scientists and would therefore prefer to contact other scientists in a scientific journal. It remains unclear what effects the letter will have. If China does not agree to a new investigation, the question of form arises. And which countries should participate? It is at least conceivable that the letter could provide the White House with some sort of useful cover to put the People’s Republic under greater pressure.
“I think there are ways to organize an investigation that has value,” says Relman. “It will not be as drastic as it could have been if it had been carried out in the first week of January 2020 and all the dates had been on the table.” But it is still not too late. “And even if we don’t get a clear answer, it would be worth it, because then we would be further than we are now.”
Whether or not an investigation reveals the source of COVID-19, Lipsitch says he believes there needs to be more public control over laboratory research on viruses that have the potential to spread uncontrollably. “It’s not just about whether a laboratory accident caused this particular pandemic,” he says. He wants attention to focus on regulating dangerous experiments. “Because we’ve seen what a pandemic can do to all of us. We should be extremely safe before we do anything that increases the likelihood of accidents even a tiny bit.”