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The Search for the Origins of the Covid-19 Virus Should Be Scientific, Not Political

There are two plausible competing theories of where the virus that causes Covid-19 came from. One theory, supported by the majority of scientists, holds that the virus originated in bats, spread to other mammals and then to humans at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. This theory is known as “zoonotic spillover.” The other plausible theory is that the virus accidentally leaked out of a virology laboratory in Wuhan. Largely because the Chinese government refuses to give researchers access to all available data and because we can never directly witness the original transfer of a virus from its initial source to humans, we may never know which of these theories is correct.

Unfortunately, the debate about the origins of the Covid-19 virus, called SARS-CoV-2, has become the topic of intense partisan political debate. Some have adopted an incorrect notion that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately made and released by the Wuhan, China laboratory as a bioweapon. A group of Republicans in the U.S. Congress accuse former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, of approving funding of “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan laboratory, which allegedly enabled scientists there to manufacture the virus. None of this is true, but it obscures the much more important question of where the virus came from and what needs to be done to reduce the chances that similar pandemic-causing pathogens will arise in the future.

The Zoonotic Spillover Theory is Most Prevalent Among Scientists

The prevailing scientific opinion has always been that the Covid-19 virus arose in bats in China. Bats have a unique immune system capability of tolerating coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2. Shortly after the outbreak of Covid-19, Chinese scientists scraped the walls, floors, metal cages, and carts at the Wuhan market and sequenced the RNA and DNA from the samples they obtained. These showed the presence of RNA from the Covid-19 virus in close proximity to human DNA. This demonstrates that humans were likely infected with the virus at the market. The Chinese government used these data to advance the entirely implausible hypothesis that visitors to the market from another country had brought the virus to the market. Apparently, the Chinese government refuses to accept that the Covid-19 virus did in fact originate in China.

Most recently, a group of French scientists searched a database of DNA and RNA sequences from the market scrapings made publicly available by Chinese scientists, probably to comply with the requirements of a scientific journal in which they were about to publish an article. They found that in addition to viral RNA and human DNA there are sequences of DNA from several mammals known to be sold at the Wuhan market, most prominently a species called the racoon dog. This is interpreted by scientists as strong evidence for the theory that humans first acquired the virus from exposure to infected animals at the market. Importantly, without access to actually infected animals from the market, which we don’t and never will have because they were all destroyed, it is impossible to prove this hypothesis beyond a shadow of a doubt. The DNA sequences of the racoon dogs and other market-sold mammals used by the French research group were subsequently deleted from the database for unclear reasons, making it difficult for scientists to continue to probe the sequence of events and the World Health Organization (WHO) has accused China of deliberately hiding data that could help get to the bottom of the origin question. Right now, scientific opinion is trending in favor of the bat to other mammal to human transfer at the Wuhan market rather than the lab leak hypothesis.

The Lab Leak Hypothesis is Possible

At the same time, what was once considered a conspiracy theory about the virus’ origins is now considered a less likely but scientifically plausible possibility by some scientists. There is no question that scientists at the Wuhan laboratory perform studies with coronaviruses and it is possible that an accident resulted in the release of one of these viruses, SARS-CoV-2. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) concluded that the lab leak hypothesis is correct, although scientists who favor the animal transfer hypothesis have strongly criticized that conclusion. They point out that the DOE itself acknowledged that their conclusion was based on “low confidence evidence.” It is also important to note that the DOE report makes clear the agency does not believe the virus was created deliberately in the lab to cause a pandemic.

Nevertheless, the accidental lab leak hypothesis is plausible. Democrats in Congress have apparently resisted entertaining this idea out of fear of stimulating conspiracy theories and anti-Asian racism about the pandemic. One of these conspiracy theories, as mentioned earlier, is the idea that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded “gain of function” research at the Wuhan lab that led to creation of SARS-CoV-2. In gain-of-function research, scientists genetically engineer viruses to have increased ability to infect host cells to better understand the mechanisms by which viruses take on pathological function. This kind of work should only be done under the most careful conditions in specialized laboratories capable of securing viruses from escape into human hosts. Dr. Fauci has adamantly denied that the NIH funded gain-of-function studies at the Wuhan lab, but a debate rages in Congress and social media about whether the NIH is responsible for the creation of SARS-CoV-2.

This politicization of the origins of the Covid-19 virus is extremely unfortunate because it risks stopping us from taking the steps needed to do all we can to prevent future pandemics. We are probably never going to know for sure where the virus came from, so we should entertain both possibilities and consider what needs to be done to reduce the risk of future pandemic viruses.

If the animal transfer hypothesis is correct, as most scientists believe, then we need to continue research into understanding how this occurs. That means that laboratory research elucidating how viruses mutate and infect hosts must continue to be sponsored and conducted, always under secure conditions. Some scientists have warned that partisan accusations about gain-of- function and other types of virology research may lead to rules that stifle critical investigation into how viruses become pathogenic. Writing in The Hill, virologists James Alwine and Felicia Goodrum Sterling noted that “Safety in all research, and particularly that with pathogens, is of paramount importance. However, new oversight should be directed by rational discourse, evidence and risk assessment. Over-regulation could unduly constrain our ability to respond to future viral pandemic threats.” At the same time that laboratory research continues, steps need to be taken to isolate animals sold to humans from wild animals like bats that carry viruses. This becomes increasingly difficult as civilization encroaches on these wild habitats, bringing bats that harbor dangerous coronaviruses closer to us. Nevertheless, countries must take steps to isolate us from disease-causing animals.

We must also take the lab leak theory seriously and acknowledge there are many laboratories around the world conducting high-risk virology research, some of which may not be currently adhering to the necessary safety standards to protect us from accidental leaks. This kind of work should only be performed in biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) laboratories, of which there are now 51 worldwide, with 18 more “scheduled to be open in the next few years,” or BSL-3 plus laboratories, of which there are 57 now operating in the world. An international commission, perhaps initiated by the WHO, should immediately be created to assess this situation, and create a plan to ensure that high-risk virology only occurs in laboratories certified to be rigorously following accepted safety standards.

We should neither trade in implausible theories nor bury plausible ones when trying to understand where the Covid-19 virus came from. Politics, including the Chinese government’s refusal to cooperate with scientists trying to investigate this question, and both Republicans and Democrats using the virus’ origins for their partisan aims, has occluded what is important here-- taking the steps needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics. It is time to put political posturing aside and enable scientists to pursue the research needed, under the safest conditions, to protect us.

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