The American public is understandably interested in how a pandemic that has killed nearly 750,000 people in this country and almost 5 million worldwide — with few signs of slowing down — emerged. But the U.S. intelligence community has now concluded that the precise sequence of events by which SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, entered the human population may never be known. Is there any point to continuing an increasingly fractious debate on the origin of Covid-19, or should we now focus on applying the lessons already learned, and think about the future?
The initial events in the Covid-19 pandemic took place in or near Wuhan, China, in late 2019 when a virus that was likely endemic to bats infected one or more humans and then began to spread from person to person. But did this transmission occur “naturally” when a bat encountered a human, whether in the Wuhan hinterlands or in a “wet market” where wild animals are sold as food? Or did an experimentally manipulated bat virus infect laboratory workers in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and then escape into the local population?
We may never know the origin of Covid-19. The lack of hard facts precludes certainty and the knowledge gaps will probably not now be filled. More outlandish theories, such as the suggestion that the Chinese government created and released SARS-CoV-2 as a germ warfare weapon; or that the virus originated in the USA and reached China via infected American athletes or even contaminated Maine lobsters can be discounted. The debate is between the natural-origin and lab-leak theories, and it is becoming increasingly sterile and ever-more vicious.
There appear to be two major drivers behind this debate: One is assigning blame for what happened in late 2019. The other is preventing future pandemics by applying lessons learned. I believe that the second of these has more value than the first.
Finger pointing is a natural human trait. Finding and punishing the guilty can be important, even 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, its highly public representative, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The Trump administration saw political advantage during 2020 in blaming China for an event that derailed Trump’s electoral prospects. The lab-leak theory was a useful way to deflect public attention away from the grossly inadequate American response to the spreading pandemic. The NIH and Fauci soon became targets for Republican venom, because a grant from the NIAID transferred money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for research on bat viruses with the potential to infect humans.
The ongoing rhetoric from Republican politicians about the origin of Covid-19 accomplishes nothing other than further polarizing U.S. society. The available public records show that the work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology using U.S. government funds could not have created SARS-CoV-2, The most recent lab-leak related controversy has centered on grant-related paperwork violations. The scientific community has also been riven by unpleasant disputes. Allegations have been made that lab-leak opponents must have conflicts of interest, however nebulous. One positive outcome is that 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, most commonly a virus, in ways that increase its capacity to infect and/or spread among people. Because of the obvious risks to humanity, it is — or should be — tightly regulated. The virology community’s debate over gain-of-function research started a decade ago, and involved dangerous influenza viruses like H5N1. It resurfaced last year when as-yet unproven allegations arose that some of the work on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was related to gain of function and not always conducted under appropriate safety conditions.
Whether that truly happened depends largely on how gain-of-function experiments are defined. And therein lies the problem: Whether or not the lab-leak theory on the origin of Covid-19 is correct, virologists have had a long time to come to terms with gain-of-function research.
I am a virologist. The reputation of the world’s virology community has taken a major hit in the past year. Our work is now under close political scrutiny, which is fair provided the attention is rational. Virologists must now work closely with government regulators worldwide to devise and implement reforms. Any remaining ambiguities in how gain-of-function research is defined, conducted and regulated need definitive resolutions. The risks of triggering a new human pandemic must be clearly understood and respected. We must satisfy the public that our work benefits society and does not threaten 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. Yet China did not take all the steps necessary to reduce the risks of another coronavirus outbreak. And here we are today. If the natural-origin theory of SARS-CoV-2 is correct, animal-to-human virus transmission in China, probably associated with the wet market industry, happened again in late 2019, and this time with catastrophic consequences. The embarrassment to the Chinese government is sufficient to explain some aspects of its secrecy and/or cover-ups over the events in Wuhan in late 2019, and its later attempts to deflect the blame elsewhere. Moving forward, China must seriously deal with its wet markets and the wild animal trade, whatever the economic and cultural consequences. It has a responsibility to the rest of the world to act decisively.
The dueling lab-leak and natural-origin controversies will probably continue, not least because key political and science proponents have taken entrenched positions — their egos are involved. But however Covid-19 originated, enough knowledge has already been accumulated that can reduce the risks of further pandemics if applied by the world’s virologists and the Chinese government. Applying those insights should be the priority moving forward. And it seems to me more important that we focus on stopping SARS-CoV-2 from spreading further than from agonizing over exactly where it came from.
One final point: While it is important to understand a catastrophic event like the Covid-19 pandemic, all of us, perhaps, should be careful what we wish for. Suppose that 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 proof to convince the Chinese government. The likely outcome would be a diplomatic and trade war that could drive a global economic depression — or worse. To justify such an outcome, the standard of proof for the origin of Covid-19 must be immaculate, and not merely based on the political rhetoric and scientific speculation that have been rife during 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 HIV virology and vaccine development.