Shi Zhengli, a virologist at a governmental facility in Wuhan, China, has refuted claims that the virus that caused the devastating COVID 19 pandemic spilled from her facility. "I don't know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist," she told The New York Times, dismissing the charges as unfounded. Though the lab leak scenario was dismissed as a conspiracy theory last year, the Biden administration's fresh interest in probing COVID's origins has raised new suspicions.
Why did people stop discussing the lab leak theory?
Last year, scientists argued that the “natural emergence” of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the most likely explanation: the virus moved from bats, or an intermediary animal, to humans in a random event sometime in 2019. Many people still believe this, and some have grown even more certain in this approach.
27 scientists wrote a letter in The Lancet in February 2020, confirming their view of the virus's natural origin and criticizing attempts to blame the outbreak on Chinese scientists.
However, in recent weeks, more scientists have spoken out about the potential that the virus may have escaped a Chinese laboratory, including some who had previously been silent, arguing that this scenario has not been fully studied.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday: "The historical basis for pandemics evolving naturally from an animal reservoir is extremely strong. And it's for that reason that we felt that something similar like this has a much higher likelihood. No one knows, not even I, 100% at this point, which is the reason why we are in favor of the further investigation."
Why is the lab leak theory making the rounds again?
The Washington Post and BuzzFeed recently obtained emails showing that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci was corresponding with a scientist as early as January 2020, looking into the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was engineered in a lab.
According to a Vanity Fair article, efforts to investigate a lab leak were stifled inside sectors of the US government because certain officials were concerned that the source could be a lab in Wuhan, China, that received US support.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that research is critical in combating the disease, but even specialists can make mistakes. In January 2020, the World Health Organization stated that there was "no clear evidence" of SARS-CoV-2 transmission between people. Face masks were not successful in stopping the spread of the disease, according to the US surgeon general in February 2020. It's plausible, then, that some specialists' dismissal of a virus with a laboratory origin was premature, given the flurry of events in the early stages of a global pandemic.
Joe Biden and the theory
Last week, when Joe Biden directed US intelligence to step up efforts to figure out where Covid-19 came from, he resurrected the hypothesis that the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The president of the United States stated that US intelligence had “coalesced around two scenarios”: the virus had either developed spontaneously or was the consequence of a lab error. It was the first time the president had given weight to the idea that the virus had spilled from a lab, a claim that had been largely dismissed as a conspiracy theory when Donald Trump first started it.
There were numerous reasons, according to current and former officials, why the Biden administration was ready to openly examine a thesis that Democrats had previously discounted.
One important element was that now that Trump was out of office, critics were more receptive to the Wuhan lab-leak argument, which was seen as a way for him to escape blame for his management of the outbreak by vilifying China. They also claimed that Biden was reacting to the findings of the intelligence. He is now being pressed by the government to find answers.
Discussions during the G7 summit
World leaders meeting in Cornwall for the G7 Summit examined the likelihood that a laboratory leak in Wuhan, central China, was linked to the commencement of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the World Health Organization's (WHO) chief noting that all ideas about the disease's origins remain open. Officials "compared notes" over the hypothesis that the epidemic began with a leak from a lab in Wuhan, according to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who called for more investigation. He did agree, though, that the UK's "best information" was that it "jumped" from animals to humans, but that they did not have "all the answers."
“That’s why internationally we wanted the review to be able to go into China to get all the answers so that we have the full picture rather than these possible, potential, plausible options”, Raab told Sky News on Sunday.
The theory was raised during a formal session at the G7 summit in Cornwall dedicated to health matters, according to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said that identifying the source of the pandemic was a core part of showing respect to the millions of people who have died from the deadly virus around the world.
"The first phase of the original study was not conclusive so there are four hypotheses, but [it's] not conclusive yet. So we believe that all four hypotheses should be open, and we need to proceed with the second phase, to really know the origins, said Dr. Ghebreyesus.
“As you know, more than 174 million people have been confirmed for COVID illness. This is actually an underestimate, it could be more. And so far, close to 3.75 million people have died. This is very tragic and I think the respect these people deserve is knowing what the origin of this virus is so that we can prevent it from happening again,” he said, stressing the importance of cooperation from the Chinese side”.
The origins of COVID-19 are still a hotly discussed topic, with some scientists and politicians claiming that the deadly virus could have leaked from a lab.
How can its origin be determined?
In order to determine whether the coronavirus has escaped from a laboratory, investigators will need access to sequence databases as well as the various resources used by Chinese researchers, such as laboratory notebooks, submitted projects, scientific manuscripts, viral sequences, order lists, and biological analyses. Since September 2019, scientists have been unable to access sequence databases for SARS-CoV-2.
Alternative ways may provide additional information in the absence of direct proof. It is feasible that the scientific community may achieve a consensus-based on strong clues by analyzing the known genomes of SARS-CoV-2-like coronaviruses in detail, as they did for past epidemics such as the 1977 H1N1 virus.
Why further research is needed on the lab theory?
The term "lab leak" refers to the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or a close relative, was being examined in a Chinese laboratory prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and then escaped. Proponents of the probe are particularly interested in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located near the Covid-19 outbreak's original epicenter. Following the 2003 SARS outbreak, the center focused more on emerging diseases, such as coronavirus-related respiratory infections. Shi Zhengli, a prominent virologist at the Wuhan lab, considered the potential of a lab leak. She told Scientific American last year that she remembered hearing about a mystery illness caused by a coronavirus spreading in the city of Wuhan in December 2019 and wondered if the illness originated in her lab.
According to reports, the institute's researchers were doing gain-of-function experiments, in which a natural virus is changed to become more virulent or better infect humans. This study aims to outline the various ways a virus could change and spread, giving scientists a head start in combating a potentially dangerous illness. However, such a study is risky.
Scientists at the Wuhan lab were previously known to be working with an international team to create chimeric versions of various coronaviruses in order to study the possibility of a human outbreak, though they claim that these chimeric viruses did not increase in pathogenicity and thus do not constitute gain of function. The experiment's chimeras were also generated in the United States, not China. Researchers from the Wuhan Institute also released a paper in 2017 about a bat coronavirus that might be transmitted straight to people, with chimeras of the wild virus being created to determine if they might infect human cells. The National Institutes of Health of the United States funded the research.
Proponents claim that thoroughly researching the possibility of a laboratory leak, even if just to rule it out, would assist answer crucial scientific concerns while also increasing public trust in the process. “We have to show that we have the will to investigate whenever something like this happens and that we have a system in place,” Chan said.