To stop the next pandemic, we need to unravel the origins of COVID-19 - David A. Relman
On 30 December 2019, the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases notified the world about a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China. Since then, scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), its transmission, pathogenesis, and mitigation by vaccines, therapeutics, and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Yet more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.
In May 2020, the World Health Assembly requested that the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general work closely with partners to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2. In November, the Terms of Reference for a China–WHO joint study were released. The information, data, and samples for the study's first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis.
Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident as “extremely unlikely”. Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident. Notably, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report's consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility.
As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.
Finally, in this time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost. We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.
Source: Jesse D. Bloom et al, Investigate the origins of COVID-19, Science, May 14, 2021.
Throughout 2020, the notion that the novel coronavirus leaked from a lab was off-limits. Those who dared to push for transparency say toxic politics and hidden agendas kept us in the dark.
We know enough to acknowledge that the scenario is possible, and we should therefore act as though it’s true.
Let me be clear. While I do believe that a lab incident is the most likely origin of the pandemic, this is only a hypothesis. That this pandemic might stem from a zoonotic jump in the wild is also a hypothesis, even though very little evidence supporting that hypothesis has so far emerged. When comparing the evidence for each possibility, the case for a lab incident origin seems significantly stronger to me.
The signatories include highly regarded scientists who are actively involved in studying SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the pandemic, such as Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher who has collaborated with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the institution at the center of debate over the lab hypothesis; and David Relman, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
The letter is the latest and one of the most visible pushes for a more rigorous investigation into the origin of the pandemic following the WHO-led team’s report.
Scientists have generally concluded that it resembles naturally occurring viruses. But they are paying more attention to other possibilities.
Yet since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, concrete origins of SARS-CoV-2 haven’t yet emerged. Though scientists are uncertain about its animal origins, they also haven’t been able to rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 came from somewhere elsewhere—namely, that it’s an escaped specimen from a lab studying dangerous pathogens.
Alina Chan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a genetic engineer who began doing some of the most controversial research into the coronavirus from her home. It started with the virus’s genetic blueprint: She’d studied SARS-CoV-1, which spread to humans back in 2003 and is closely related to the newer virus. What stood out to Chan was that it looked like the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, wasn’t having to adapt to spread like SARS-CoV-1 did, and she couldn’t figure out why. Chan typed up her findings and included scenarios that could explain them, including the possibility that a non–genetically engineered virus was grown in a lab and accidentally spilled. Her paper never claimed that the lab leak was the only explanation for the pandemic—just one that deserved consideration.
“This is a long and quite possibly fruitless effort, yet it is an essential one, both to understand this pandemic and to better strategize how to prevent the next one.” Angela Rasmussen,
Chinese officials did “little” in terms of epidemiological investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan in the first eight months after the outbreak, according to an internal World Health Organization document seen by the Guardian.
What’s even more troubling is that despite the critical importance of this question, efforts to investigate the origins of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus and of the associated disease, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), have become mired in politics, poorly supported assumptions and assertions, and incomplete information.
When Chinese scientists alerted colleagues to a new virus last December, suspicion fell on a Wuhan market. What have health officials learned since then?
All it took was one coronavirus to turn the world upside down. But how many more are out there, lurking in animals? And what's the chance they could jump into people and trigger another outbreak?
Grit plus luck was sufficient to break open the SARS story. I doubt the same will be true for COVID-19.
The search continues for the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19—and the pathway that it took to leap from animals to humans, wreaking havoc across the globe, infecting more than 129 million people, and killing more than 2.8 million.
it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost. We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.
A group of scientists and others who are critics of the W.H.O. team report want a broader investigation into the potential sources of the coronavirus pandemic, and a review of lab security in handling viruses.
Some are trying to turn the lab-leak theory into a potent political weapon.
Before COVID-19, few scientists would have pegged the city of Wuhan, in temperate central China, as a likely starting point for a global coronavirus pandemic. Its climate and fauna don't fit the bill. But the city of 11 million straddling the Yangtze River is home to some of China's most advanced biological research laboratories. And one of the secretive, state-run institutions, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is known to conduct experiments on the kind of virus that has killed nearly 3 million people worldwide so far since late 2019.
WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2 (including annexes).