The jury is still out on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 disease. But laboratory release is still well and truly on the cards, as acknowledged recently by an international panel of experts, as a possibility alongside natural origins.
The Lancet COVID-19 Commission in its fourth and final report has called for further scientific investigation into both possibilities, as “identification of the origin of the virus will help to prevent future pandemics.”
The search for the origin thus far has remained incomplete and inconclusive, the report said.
Notably, laboratory-associated escape of the virus has been deemed feasible by the expert panel; however it is important to know what this scenario entails. Three possibilities are noted:
a researcher got infected collecting virus samples in the field,
a researcher got infected in the laboratory while studying the natural virus, and
a researcher got infected in the laboratory while studying the genetically modified virus.
These are all forms of research-related spillovers, which need to be seriously looked into if a future pandemic has to be kept at bay.
Natural spillovers, rather than laboratory incidents, have been the major cause for most of history, whether it’s the black death, the 1918 influenza pandemic, or HIV.
A natural spillover is when a pathogen moves from an animal host to a human and then human-to-human transmission ensues.
The likely proximal origin of the two coronavirus outbreaks this century — severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — were identified to be palm civets and raccoon dogs, in the case of SARS, and dromedary camels, in the case of MERS.
These animals, however, are only conduits. The primary evolutionary source of the virus in both cases was the bat.
SARS-CoV-2 itself comes from a bat SARS-CoV-related coronavirus, but one aspect makes a huge difference to human transmission in the case of the novel coronavirus.
Unlike SARS and MERS, the Covid-19-causing virus has a furin cleavage site that enhances the capacity of the virus to infect human cells. (This site is said to be present in many coronaviruses, but not in the family of SARS-CoV.)
Because of the significance of this furin cleavage site, it has been a subject of laboratory experiment since the 2000s, after the emergence of SARS, towards the study and testing of potential drugs and vaccines.
This is why, at this point, both natural and laboratory scenarios, until conclusive evidence is found, remain fair possibilities.
How things have changed, though. It was this very publication, the Lancet, that in February 2020 hosted a letter signed by 27 scientists which bracketed, wholesale, suggestions of Covid-19 not having a natural origin as “conspiracy theories.”
Such a strong stance seemed to want to cut off the wider scientific debate on the origins of the novel coronavirus. It was later revealed that all but one of the scientist-signatories were connected one way or another with Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
A year and a half after the first letter, the Lancet published a separate report calling for “an objective, open, and transparent scientific debate about the origin of SARS-CoV-2” and said “a laboratory-related accident is plausible.”
Now comes the latest report, where the plausibility of a laboratory origin is firmly on the table.
Leak From A US Lab?
Interestingly, despite all the talk of the coronavirus escaping from China ever since the outbreak at the end of 2019, the report says that the eventual discovery of a natural reservoir of the virus might occur “quite possibly outside of China.”
The United States (US), in particular, was under special scrutiny by the Commission.
Noting that independent investigations into the US laboratories engaged in manipulating SARS-CoV-like viruses is still pending, the report took aim at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The Commission noted that the NIH “has resisted disclosing details” of the research it had been supporting and “providing extensively redacted information only as required by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.”
The claim of possible US involvement cannot be seen in isolation from the previously expressed stance of the lead author of the report, economist Professor Jeffrey D Sachs.
In July this year, the Chinese embassy in France shared on Twitter a video clip where the Columbia University professor says, “I am pretty convinced it (SARS-CoV-2) came out of a US lab biotechnology, not out of nature. Just to mention, after two years of intensive work on this. So it’s a blunder, in my view, of biotech, not an accident of natural spillover.”
He offered the light concession that “we don’t know for sure.”
Speaking around the same time to European news organisation Politico, Sachs said, “There is a lot more circumstantial evidence of relevance in support of the lab-leak hypothesis.”
In an opinion article for the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Sachs and his co-author, Neil Harrison, wrote in May that the research work around SARS-CoV-like viruses in Wuhan “was part of an active and highly collaborative US–China scientific research program funded by the US Government…” involving researchers at several US institutions.
For this reason, he demands transparency from US institutions, as he and others do in the Lancet report too.
Sachs also went on a podcast hosted by Robert F Kennedy Jr, who has emerged as a leader of the anti-vaccine movement in the US, leaving critics, many of them scientists, none too pleased with his views.
Scientists say recent evidence of the Huanan market origin — a natural spillover — doesn’t find an acknowledgement in the Commission’s report. Most of the earliest human cases, according to recent research, were centred around the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.
“Where a lab leak at the WIV might be expected to have led to the first COVID-19 cases being detected there, there were none. Instead, the majority of cases were at the largest live wildlife market in Wuhan, one of only a handful in the city with consistent sales,” an article in Foreign Policy, in response to the Lancet report, says.
Ultimately, whether the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 is natural or laboratory release, it all comes down to thorough scientific investigation of both possibilities.
In saying so, we circle back to a key recommendation of the report: “WHO, governments, and the scientific community should intensify the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2…”
Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.
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