tThe American public is understandably interested in the onset of a pandemic that has killed nearly 750,000 people in this country and nearly 5 million people worldwide — with little sign of slowing down. But the US intelligence community has now concluded that the exact sequence of events through which SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, entered the human population may never be known. Does it make sense to continue an increasingly fierce debate about the origins of Covid-19, or should we focus now on applying the lessons learned and thinking about the future?
The first events of the Covid-19 pandemic occurred in or near Wuhan, China, in late 2019, when a virus believed to be endemic to bats infected one or more humans and then began to spread from person to person. But did this transfer happen “naturally” when a bat encountered a human, whether in the backwoods of Wuhan or at a “wet market” where wild animals are sold for food? Or did an experimentally manipulated bat virus infected lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and then escaped to the local population?
We may never know the origin of Covid-19. The lack of hard facts precludes certainty and the knowledge gaps are now unlikely to be filled. More bizarre theories, such as the suggestion that the Chinese government created and released SARS-CoV-2 as a germ war weapon; whether the virus originated in the US and reached China through infected US athletes or even contaminated Maine lobsters can be discounted. The debate is between the theories of natural origin and lab leak, and it’s getting more sterile and more brutal.
There seem to be two main drivers behind this debate: one is blaming what happened at the end of 2019. The other is preventing future pandemics by applying the lessons learned. I believe the second of these has more value than the first.
Finger pointing is a natural human trait. Finding and punishing the culprits can be important, if only psychologically. But applying such motivations to the lab-leak theory long ago degenerated into China bashing and bizarre attacks on the National Institutes of Health and, more specifically, the very public representative, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The Trump administration saw political advantage in 2020 by blaming China for an event that derailed Trump’s electoral prospects. The lab-leak theory has been a useful way to divert public attention from the grossly inadequate US response to the spreading pandemic. The NIH and Fauci quickly became targets of Republican poison as a grant from the NIAID transferred money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for research into bat viruses that can infect humans.
Republican politicians’ persistent rhetoric about the origins of Covid-19 accomplishes nothing but further polarize American society. Available public records show that work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology using US government funds could not have resulted in SARS-CoV-2. The scientific community is also torn by unpleasant disputes. Allegations have been made that opponents of lab-leak must have conflicts of interest, however vague. On a positive note, the lab leak theory has refocused the world’s virologists on an important scientific topic: gain-of-function research.
This work involves the experimental manipulation of a pathogen, usually a virus, in ways that increase its ability to infect and/or spread humans. Because of the obvious risks to humanity, it is – or should be – tightly regulated. The virology community’s debate on gain-of-function research began a decade ago and involved dangerous influenza viruses such as H5N1. It resurfaced last year when as-yet-unsubstantiated allegations arose that some of the work on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was related to function gains and was not always conducted under proper safety conditions.
Whether that actually happened depends largely on how gain-of-function experiments are defined. And therein lies the problem: Whether or not the lab leak theory about the origins of Covid-19 is correct, virologists have had a long time to deal with gain-of-function research.
I am a virologist. The reputation of the global virology community has been badly damaged in the past year. Our work is now under close political scrutiny, which is reasonable, provided the focus is rational. Virologists now have to work closely with government regulators around the world to devise and implement reforms. Any remaining ambiguities in how gain-of-function research is defined, conducted and regulated need definitive solutions. The risks of triggering a new human pandemic must be clearly understood and respected. We need to convince the public that our work benefits society, not threatens it.
There are also lessons for the Chinese government. The SARS outbreak of 2003 originated in a Chinese wet market when a bat-like coronavirus spread to humans. Still, China has not taken all the measures necessary to reduce the risks of a new coronavirus outbreak. And here we are today. If the natural origin theory of SARS-CoV-2 is correct, another animal-to-human virus transmission occurred in China at the end of 2019, probably related to the wet market industry, and this time with catastrophic consequences. The embarrassment of the Chinese government is enough to explain some aspects of its secrecy and/or cover-ups about the events in Wuhan in late 2019, and its subsequent attempts to shift blame elsewhere. In the future, China must be serious about its wet markets and wildlife trade, regardless of the economic and cultural impact. It has a responsibility to the rest of the world to act decisively.
The dueling controversies over lab leak and natural origins are likely to continue, not least because key political and scientific proponents have taken deep-seated positions — their egos are involved. But no matter how Covid-19 came about, enough knowledge has already been accumulated that could reduce the risks of further pandemics, if applied by the world’s virologists and the Chinese government. Applying those insights should be the priority for the future. And I think it’s more important that we focus on preventing SARS-CoV-2 from spreading further than worrying about where exactly it comes from.
One last point: While it’s important to understand a catastrophic event like the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps we should all be careful about what we wish for. Suppose the Western world collectively concluded that the leak of a virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was responsible for the pandemic, but was unable to provide sufficient evidence to convince the Chinese government. The likely outcome would be a diplomatic and trade war that could spark a global economic depression — or worse. To justify such an outcome, the standard of evidence for the origin of Covid-19 must be impeccable, and not just based on the political rhetoric and scientific speculation that has been rife for the past two years.
John P. Moore is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. His research is funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health for the development of HIV virology and vaccines.