By Eric Vandenbroeck 30 May 2021
The origins of COVID-19 are shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories. Some say it started in a lab when scientists fell sick after manipulating a bat-coronavirus. Others say the team was working on a bioweapon for the Chinese military.
Then, three days ago the news broke that President Biden asks the US intelligence community to explore the unlikely possibility that virus origins trace to the Chinese lab.
Facebook next announced it was lifting a ban on posts claiming that Covid-19 was “manmade”, saying in a statement to Axios that the decision was made “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of Covid-19 and in consultation with public health experts”.
At the center of this theory is a laboratory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus was first recorded:
The issue is still being hotly contested.
A World Health Organization (WHO) investigation was supposed to get to the bottom of it, but many experts believed it produced more questions than answers.
A team of WHO-appointed scientists flew to Wuhan earlier this year on a mission to investigate the source of the pandemic. After spending 12 days there, which included a visit to the laboratory, the team concluded the lab-leak theory was "extremely unlikely".
But there is growing consensus among experts that the laboratory leak should be looked at more closely.
Even the WHO's own director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has called for a new investigation, saying: "All hypotheses remain open and require further study."
And Dr Fauci now says he's "not convinced" the virus originated naturally. That is a shift from a year ago when he rejected the lab theory.
Is there another theory?
Yes, and it's called the "natural origin" theory.
This argues the virus spreads naturally from animals, without the involvement of any scientists or laboratories. Supporters of the natural origin hypothesis say Covid-19 emerged in bats and then jumped to humans, most likely through another animal, or "intermediary host".
That idea was backed by the WHO report, which said it was "likely to very likely" that Covid had made it to humans through an intermediate host.
This hypothesis was widely accepted at the start of the pandemic, but as time has worn on, scientists have not found a virus in either bats or another animal that matches the genetic make-up of Covid-19, casting doubt over the theory.
Why does this matter?
Given the massive human toll of the pandemic - which has now claimed the lives of 3.5 million people worldwide - most scientists think understanding how and where the virus originated is crucial to prevent it from happening again.
Questions about the upcoming Lab Theory book
Part-thriller, part-expose, What Really Happened in Wuhan is a ground-breaking investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the cover-ups, the conspiracies, and the classified research, from Walkley Award-winning journalist Sharri Markson.
Markson’s earlier work on Covid-19 has also been criticized, including a 2020 report in the Daily Telegraph on a 15-page “bombshell dossier” that laid “the foundation for the case of negligence being mounted against China.”
But the so-called dossier was described by Nine newspapers as just a research report, based on publicly available information, including news reports.
Markson dismisses criticism of her work about the origins of the virus as the mainstream media being “incurious,” telling Bannon she was “slammed by the leftwing media in Australia.”
In an interview about her book, Markson told the Australian newspaper that her reporting on Covid-19 had made her the target of “shallow criticism” from the leftwing press.
“The leftwing media, the ABC, the SMH, the Guardian, ridiculed me for investigating this a year ago, claiming it was a conspiracy theory,” Markson said.
The former foreign minister Bob Carr said Markson’s story was an example of “China panic” washing through the Australian media.
Carr told Guardian Australia the story was a case study in the type of reporting that had contributed to the “collapse” in the relationship between the two countries.
Markson told Guardian Australia she “wouldn’t lose a minute sleepover anything Bob Carr says”
She said the state-run Global Times had falsely accused her report of describing the document as a “leaked” paper.
“In fact, our story states that it was published in 2015 by the Chinese Military Medical Science Press, a Chinese government-owned publishing house managed by the General Logistics Department of the PLA. We also said it had circulated among Chinese dissident communities online,” she said.
“One author of the paper was the deputy director of China’s Bureau of Epidemic Prevention. Another, Professor Xu Dezhong, is a prominent military scientist who held a leadership role during the Sars pandemic, reporting to the Ministry for Health and receiving a Gold Medal award from the Military Academy Education.”
For observers such as the uncertainty underlines the need for more discussion about the risks that the world is willing to take in the name of science. More facilities for pathogen research are being built worldwide, and even the most sophisticated biosecurity measures may sometimes leak.
That means the research needs to be carried out in ways that allow scrutiny and accountability, that the knowledge sought needs to be worth the risks, and that that knowledge, once gained, should be used and made useful. There is no compelling evidence that the presence of the WIV in the city where the covid-19 pandemic began was anything other than a coincidence. But neither is there evidence that the WIV’s coronavirus research, justified in the name of pandemic preparedness, did anything to lessen this pandemic’s toll.
Analyzing the Wuhan lab Theory
On the outskirts of a village deep in the mountains of southwest China, alone surveillance camera peers down toward a disused copper mine smothered in dense bamboo. As night approaches, bats swoop overhead.
This is the subterranean home of the closest known virus on earth to the one that causes covid-19. It is also now a touchpoint for escalating calls for a more thorough probe into whether the pandemic could have stemmed from a Chinese laboratory.
In April 2012, six miners fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano. Three of them died.
Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses.
Now, unanswered questions about the miners’ illness, the viruses found at the site, and the research done with them have elevated into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that sars-Nov-2, the virus that causes covid-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019.
Is it possible that the chain of infections that spread sars-Nov-2 worldwide began, as most new diseases do, when an animal virus found its way unaided into humans, whether infield or farm, cave or market? It is also possible that the chain began in a Chinese government laboratory. These two possibilities have been recognized by many of those studying the covid-19 pandemic for a long time. But the fact that two things are both possible does not mean they are equally likely.
For most of 2020, scientists and the media tended to treat the likelihood of a leak from a lab as a tiny one, with everyday contact, “zoonotic spillover”, overwhelmingly more probable. That has now changed. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, said in March that assessment of the laboratory hypothesis had not yet been extensive enough. On May 26th, President Joe Biden ordered America’s intelligence agencies, which have not concluded either way on the subject, to go away and try harder.
The place most strongly tied to the emergence of sars-cov-2 is a fish and animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. China’s wildlife markets and the trade which supplies them with their civets, rats, pangolins, and badgers are viral melting pots brimming with opportunities for zoonotic spillover. In the 2010s, a study in Vietnam showed that animals acquire coronaviruses from each other as they journey to restaurants or markets; there is no reason to think Chinese supply chains are more salubrious. In February last year, China announced a ban on wildlife consumption and trade to recognize the risks. It was a big step and a costly one.
The first flutterings of lab-leak concern were prompted by simple geography. That market is just 12km away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a global center for coronavirus research. The Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also worked on bat coronaviruses, is closer still: a mere 500 meters. A worker or workers in one of these labs could have been infected with a coronavirus being used in research, thus providing that virus with passage to the outside world. The related idea is that the virus came directly from a bat, or another animal, either inside a lab or as part of research-associated fieldwork. An avid collector of wild bat viruses works for the CDC.
If one of these possibilities were to prove true, it would be deeply and disturbingly ironic. Ever since the outbreak of Sars, a respiratory disease caused by another coronavirus, in the early 2000s, coronaviruses have been seen as having a worrying propensity for pandemics. That is what made them of particular interest to the researchers in Wuhan; their work on coronaviruses was carried out in the name of reducing the threat they posed.
Pathogens escape from institutions working on them with depressing frequency. The last known death from smallpox was the result of a laboratory leak in Britain in 1978. Sars-Nov-1, the virus that causes Sars, escaped from labs twice as it spread worldwide in 2003, once in Singapore and once in Taiwan; it leaked out of a Beijing lab on two separate occasions in 2004. In December 2019, more than 100 students and staff at two agricultural research centers in Lanzhou were struck with an outbreak of brucellosis, a bacterial disease usually caught from livestock.
Most alarmingly, the h1n1 strain of influenza, which started spreading around the world in 1977, is now known to have been released from a northeast Asian lab, possibly in China, possibly in Russia. Some Western observers suspected this at the time. Still, they made little fuss about it, perhaps afraid that doing so would lead to China and/or Russia pulling out international flu surveillance efforts or spark a backlash against virology.
Biosecurity at the WIV was known to be spotty. American diplomats who visited it in 2018 reportedly flagged issues of concern, making specific mention of coronaviruses and pandemic risk. In February 2020, the Chinese ministry of science and technology issued new rules requiring laboratories to improve their biosafety, indicating unease with the status quo.
What evidence from the spread of the disease?
The idea of a laboratory leak was apparently not unthinkable to those involved. When Shi Zhengli, a coronavirus researcher who is the director of the WIV’s Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, was interviewed for Scientific American in early 2020, she said one of her first concerns was whether the virus could have come from own lab. After searching records of all the viral sequences they had worked with, she concluded it had not. Yet, the Chinese government has rarely been hesitant to suppress any information that does not suit it, and Dr. Shi may not be able to say otherwise. It is also possible that the virus came from work outside her purview.
Dr. Shi’s group at the WIV has spent years trying to understand mutations that would allow bat viruses to spill over into human populations. In the pursuit of such questions, they conducted research designed to make coronaviruses more.
Infectious to humans. In work published in 2015, they reported a chimera created from a bat coronavirus and a mouse coronavirus that could replicate efficiently in human airway cells.
Some proponents of the lab theory have speculated about what other animals the laboratory might have used in this work. They point out that the virus looks very much like a cross between a pangolin virus and a bad virus with an additional genetic sequence that makes the virus far more infectious to humans. This “furin cleavage site” is not found in other closely related viruses; perhaps it was put there, they say.
There are various counterarguments to the specifics of these speculations. There is also a more overarching caveat based on the insights of Charles Darwin: natural selection can come up with all sorts of subtleties that look like irrefutable evidence for intelligent design to those who start off believing in a designer.
What evidence from the spread of the disease? According to the Guardian, when the who sent scientist Peter Ben Embarek to China in July 2020, his subsequent report to the agency stated that the Chinese had done “little…in epidemiological investigations around Wuhan since January 2020”. Some infer that China is not looking because it knows, or perhaps fears, the answer.
That lack of zeal adds to lab-leak suspicions. One reason for the increased interest in such ideas is that only limited further evidence for zoonotic spillover has come to light; no one has found anything close to a “smoking bat.”
When the lab-leak story seems to have momentum, and the zoonotic story appears to sit there, it is natural for people to get the feeling that the lab hypothesis is becoming more likely. But it is not strictly logical. It is also important to remember that the relatively quick progress made on the origin of Sars in 2003 is not necessarily a reliable guide to how fast such sleuthing normally results.
While some data are absent, others are not being shared. During the visit early this year, the Chinese authorities refused requests to provide key epidemiological data on the 174 earliest known cases of covid-19 in the city in December 2019.
These data are crucial. Not all the early cases of covid-19 were from the market. Rather than being the outbreak source, it could simply have been a place where the virus was amplified. That speaks to the need to look at other possible sources, requiring individualized data on every early case. The lack of such data meant that the who team was unable to do a standard epidemiological investigation, Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist, told the Wall Street Journal at the time. These early cases of covid-19 could point clearly in the direction of either an animal or laboratory source.
Excitement about the latter possibility has been stoked by the re-emergence of claims that three workers from the WIV got sick with something a bit covid-like in November 2019, claims first aired by the state department in the dying days of the Trump administration. But these reports lack corroboration, sources, or details of where the people involved actually worked in the lab. That means they do nothing to move the story along.
The evidence to date shows that the circumstantial assumptions on which the idea is based, coronavirus research and that it could have leaked, are true; it does not provide direct insight into the outbreak proper. As Ralph Baric, an American researcher who helped set up the WIV’s coronavirus work, told the Wall Street Journal, “more investigation and transparency are needed to define the origin”; he himself continues to see zoonotic spillover as the more likely possibility.
Ideally, China would help such investigations unearth new evidence. That can hardly be counted on. The dogged work of America’s intelligence services may turn up compelling arguments for or against
Regardless, the many scientists poring over details of the virus’s genome and structure may come up with something. But there is no guarantee that the question will be solved soon.
Demands for laboratory investigations ramped up further as the World Health Assembly commenced on 24 May. The United States has since requested that the WHO conduct a “transparent, science-based” phase-two origins study, and US President Joe Biden announced that he has asked the US intelligence community, in addition to its national labs, to “press China to participate” in an investigation. The WHO, which does not have the authority to conduct an investigation in China without the country’s permission, is currently considering proposals for this next-phase origins study.