Everything at stake in the hunt for COVID-19’s origins

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Since the early days of the pandemic, there's been broad scientific consensus that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originally developed in bats before eventually moving to humans, just as the viruses behind SARS and MERS did. An alternate explanation, that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, was largely dismissed as something between highly unlikely and wildly conspiratorial.

Over time, however, the lab leak theory has gained more traction among respected scientists as circumstantial evidence has piled up and proof of animal transmission hasn’t emerged. To be clear, no explanation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has been proven and many scientists still say it is far more likely that the virus developed naturally. But a number of health experts who had expressed near certainty about the issue last spring are now at least considering the lab leak theory as a possibility.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said earlier this month that he’s “not convinced” that the virus originated in the wild and said he supported further investigation into the question. Dr. Robert Redfield, who was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until January, said recently that he believes the lab theory is the “most likely” explanation.

In the most basic terms, the lab leak theory posits that the virus was created by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a prominent research facility in the same part of China where the pandemic first took hold — and was unwittingly transmitted to the general population by lab staffers who became infected there. An alternative theory, that the virus was released deliberately as a bioweapon, has been thoroughly debunked.

Why there’s debate

The origins of the coronavirus aren’t just a matter of scientific curiosity. A definitive answer to where it came from could have an enormous impact on how we understand and prepare for deadly outbreaks, the political effects of the pandemic in the U.S and the world’s relationship with China.

Some experts say proof that the virus escaped from a lab would upend the entire field of virology and force the scientific community to reconsider how it studies dangerous pathogens. Others fear that a lab leak would undo the trust and goodwill that the field of science has gained with much of the public over the course of the pandemic.

In the U.S., proof of a lab leak could allow former President Donald Trump — who repeatedly attempted to blame China for the pandemic — to reframe what is widely considered to be his failed response to the virus, political analysts say. That would not only have an impact on his legacy, they argue, but could also influence his chances of winning reelection if he runs for president again. The lab leak theory could also be a moment of reckoning for the media, some argue, because of the certainty with which they dismissed the idea last year.

The debate over the lab leak has already raised tensions between the Chinese government — which categorically denies the theory — and its international competitors, who have become frustrated with China’s lack of transparency throughout the pandemic. Clear evidence that the virus did in fact escape from a Chinese lab could further fray the country’s international relationships or deal a blow to its ambitions to become the world’s dominant economic power, experts say.

What’s next

President Biden on Wednesday asked U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to find the source of COVID-19, but it’s unclear whether China will allow anything more than the limited access they have offered to global investigators so far. Many virologists say it’s possible that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 may never be proven.

Perspectives

Debate over COVID’s origins is distracting from the global effort to stamp out the virus

“While a lab-leak debate overwhelms the media & politics, tidal waves of COVID will crash on low/middle-income countries. New strains of SARSCoV2 could evolve in the next few years. … Powerful countries would be wise to concentrate on preventing that.” — Nature reporter Amy Maxman

We need to know how this pandemic started if we want to prevent the next one

“This question of origins is not an idle debate, either. It matters a lot, because knowing how a virus-driven pandemic begins focuses our attention on preventing similar situations. There are many more disease-causing viruses out there.” — Josh Fischman, Scientific American

The way we research and prepare for deadly viruses could be upended

“Virologists have a significant stake in the origin issue because they have for years enhanced the danger of natural viruses in their laboratories. … If in fact one of these souped-up viruses is the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, virologists everywhere, not just in China, will have a lot of explaining to do.” — Nicholas Wade, New York Post

Proof isn’t necessary to reconsider dangerous virology practices

“It’s not all about whether a lab accident caused this particular pandemic. I’d like to see the attention focus on the regulation of dangerous experiments, because we’ve seen what a pandemic can do to us all, and we should be extremely sure before we do anything that increases that probability even a little.” — Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch to MIT Technology Review

Proof of a lab leak could erode public trust in science

“Should we discover that COVID-19 originated in research — however well-intentioned — a recent boost in public support for science could evaporate, which might be the greatest risk of all.” — Bryan Walsh, Axios

The lab leak, if proven, could become a political weapon for Republicans

“Pro-Trumpers want to use Chinese misconduct — real and imagined — as a weapon in a culture war here at home. They are not interested in weighing the evidence. They want payback for the political and cultural injuries inflicted on them by the scientists. They want Fauci to have time in the barrel. What the rest of us should want is the truth.” — David Frum, The Atlantic

No answer on COVID’s origins will excuse Trump’s failed pandemic response

“In any case, whether it originated in a lab or a wet market is irrelevant to Trump’s decisions — either way, his job was to protect Americans from the virus, and he failed.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

The media, on both sides, must reconsider how it lets politics define truth

“The narrative first failures of right-wing media during this pandemic, I think, have tangibly degraded the nation's ability both to govern itself and fight off pandemics. But it is not exclusive to them. Those impulses suffuse all of us. … It should be an object lesson to all of us not to let ourselves view the world primarily as through a set of facts that may or may not be conveniently marshaled for a specific political end.” — Chris Hayes, MSNBC

The liberal media’s credibility could take a major blow

“It's not that we found new evidence backing the hypothesis. It's just that the same journalists who parroted the talking points of scientists with obvious conflicts of interest were so blinded by their partisan loathing of then-President Donald Trump that they could not be trusted to evaluate the evidence themselves.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner

Proof of a lab leak could destabilize China’s government

“Although no one could blame China for a natural occurrence, people around the world and in China would be enraged if it were discovered that COVID-19 stemmed from an accidental lab leak and coverup. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grip on power could be threatened.” — Jamie Metzl, The Hill

Clear evidence of a lab leak could have massive economic repercussions

“You know what animal smugglers have zero impact upon? Apple’s manufacturing; Disney’s revenues from movies, theme parks, and merchandise sales; America’s exports of soybeans, oil, natural gas, microchips, cotton, and corn — $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues. You know what does have an impact on $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues? The Chinese government, which is why a whole lot of America’s business, political, cultural, and social elites don’t want to antagonize the Chinese government.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

The lab leak theory doesn’t need to be proven for the world’s faith in China to be broken

“Even if the lab-leak hypothesis is false, the evidence is overwhelming that China's government denied the seriousness of the outbreak for weeks, silencing Chinese voices that tried to sound the alarm, before the decision to lock down Wuhan made dissembling impossible. By then, though, the pandemic was already well underway. The culpability of the Chinese government is clear, in other words, regardless of the truth about the pandemic's origins.” — Noah Millman, The Week

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