On Wednesday, President Joe Biden ordered a fresh effort by intelligence officials to clarify the origins of the novel coronavirus that sparked the worst pandemic in nearly a century, including a new look at the possibility that it leaked from a controversial lab in Wuhan, China. But we will need much more than an intelligence inquiry to resolve this vital question, one that has been submerged in a mix of Chinese obfuscation, Trump administration conspiracy theories, and genuine scientific mystery.
COVID-19 is now the third major disruptive coronavirus epidemic of the 21st century, and we should expect others to follow. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in Southern China in 2002-03, causing significant global social disruption, including a severe epidemic in Toronto, Ontario. A decade later, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) arose on the Arabian Peninsula, ultimately causing a serious outbreak and many deaths in South Korea in 2015. It was in response to these two catastrophic coronavirus epidemics that our Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development embarked on a coronavirus vaccine program. We knew it was just a matter of time before we saw additional epidemics from this group of viruses.
Right on cue, COVID-19 emerged in Hubei Province, China.
The first major announcement of a cluster of novel coronavirus cases came from China in the final hours of December 2019. However, according to a South China Morning Post report published just as the pandemic was bringing chaos to the United States, Chinese government data pointed to a 55-year old woman diagnosed on November 17, 2019, in Hubei Province as a possible first known case. Things have continued to get more confusing: A biomedical informatics group from Harvard Medical School and Boston University found compelling evidence for an uptick in hospitalized patients with potential COVID-19 signs and symptoms going back to August 2019. And various reports over the past year have pointed to possible cases in Europe and elsewhere predating 2020. Therefore, it is theoretically possible that China’s second major coronavirus epidemic began almost two years ago, or late in the summer.
This timeline is similar to the original SARS that erupted in February of 2003, even as the first actual case is suspected to have started four months earlier, according to the World Health Organization.
Of course, it’s not so much when the first case happened, as where, that has become the source of so much intrigue and innuendo.
Increasingly, the longstanding near-consensus that the likely origins of human COVID-19 was in an animal virus reservoir, such as bats, is coming under fire. In that scenario, which I continue to think is the most plausible, the virus’ gestation or circulation in bats may have been followed by increasing human-bat interactions, possibly as a result of the expansion of human populations in forested areas. A similar scenario was likely responsible for the emergence of Ebola virus infection in Africa. Many scientists feel it is more likely that the novel coronavirus may have jumped from bats to humans indirectly, through an intermediate animal.
The major competing view throughout this pandemic has been that the virus was conceived artificially through manipulations in the laboratory (especially the Wuhan Institute of Virology), that it was a naturally occurring virus that leaked from a lab accidentally, or both. While many have suggested there may be so-called “smoking guns” for one or the other hypothesis, to my mind, they are inconclusive at best. For example, the finding of unique RNA sequences in the COVID-19 virus, including a so-called furin-cleavage site, is considered by some as evidence of virus manipulation in the laboratory or “gain-of-function” research. The latter refers to cases where scientists attempt to actually make a virus more transmissible or infectious deliberately.
However, furin-cleavage sites are well-known to be present in multiple naturally-occurring coronaviruses, including the MERS coronavirus. Therefore, it is not at all clear that such sites were engineered by scientists working on SARS CoV-2.
Wuhan Lab origin advocates have also seized on recent reporting, including from The Wall Street Journal, that a U.S. Intelligence briefing found that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers were hospitalized in November 2019, possibly with COVID-19 symptoms. From my perspective, this could mean many things, including the possibility that they were investigating suspected COVID-19 infections, or that they became infected while working with a different coronavirus infection. They also could simply have had an unrelated viral or non-viral illness.
While I believe the likelihood is that COVID-19 has natural origins, I share the view, published in a recent letter calling for more investigation in Science by a slew of top experts, that it is also plausible the virus emerged through a laboratory accident. From my perspective, there is only one way to sort this out. The Chinese government must invite a team of international scientists to spend time, possibly months and up to a year, in Hubei Province, including the city of Wuhan and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in order to conduct an extensive investigation.
The scientists would need full access to COVID-19 patients who fell ill with COVID-19-like signs and symptoms in the fall of 2019, and be permitted to interview them or collect their blood and confirm if they may have antibodies to the SARS-2 coronavirus. They would also need access to virus samples for genomic sequencing and other analyses.
But that’s not all.
They would need access to local populations of bats and other animal reservoirs, including domestic and laboratory animals. They must be permitted to interview scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (or other local research institutes and universities), and provided access to their laboratory notebooks or logs.
The only way to prevent the next coronavirus pandemic is to fully understand what happened in 2019 to result in the emergence of a scourge that has ravaged the planet. This is in the enlightened self-interest of the Chinese Government, given that two of the three major global epidemics arose in China. Unfortunately, so far, the Chinese Government has not been transparent or open to such an undertaking. In fact, China’s latest rejoinder to WHO probes appears to have inspired Biden’s call for new intelligence in the first place.
But it’s not enough for armchair theorists to seize on incremental data-points leaked from U.S. intelligence officials, or even for those officials to theorize from afar. Resolving this controversy has to be for scientists, not spies.