Relman agrees that in the absence of conclusive evidence, the message on origins should be “we don’t know.” After the Lancet statement, and then a subsequent paper on SARS-CoV-2’s origins written by scientists who concluded “we do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” he found himself increasingly disheartened by those who he claimed had seized on a spillover scenario, despite “an amazing absence of data.” Relman says he felt he had to push back. So he wrote a widely-disseminated opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claiming that a lab origin was among several potential scenarios; that conflicts of interest among those on all sides of the issue had to be revealed and addressed; and that uncovering SARS-CoV-2’s true origins was essential for preventing another pandemic. Efforts to investigate the origins, he wrote, “have become mired in politics, poorly supported assumptions and assertions, and incomplete information.”
One of the first media calls after the opinion piece was published came from Laura Ingraham at Fox News, Relman says. He declined the interview.
When asked why he thought Daszak and others pushed so strongly against the possibility of a lab leak, Relman says they may have wanted to deflect perceptions of their work as endangering humankind. With so-called “gain-of-function” experiments, for instance, scientists genetically manipulate viruses to probe their evolution — sometimes in ways that boost virulence or transmissibility. This sort of research can reveal targets for drugs and vaccines for viral diseases, including Covid-19, and was used at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in studies showing that certain bat coronaviruses were just a few mutations away from being able to bind to human ACE2. A 2015 paper in Nature Medicine notes that the “potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens.”
Relman proposes that among those trying to suppress the lab-release hypothesis, there might have been “far too much protection of one’s self and one’s peers before allowing a really important question to receive a hearing.” And scientists collaborating with researchers in China, “might worry about their working relationship if they say anything other than ‘this threat comes from nature.’”
Other scientists say opposition to the lab-leak hypothesis was grounded more in a general disbelief that SARS-CoV-2 could have been deliberately engineered. “This is what became politicized,” Perlman says. As to whether the virus may have escaped after evolving naturally, he says that is “more difficult to rule in or rule out.”
In an email message last week, Relman added that the question may never be fully settled. “From the natural spillover angle, it would take a confirmed contact between a proven naturally infected host species (e.g. bat) and a human or humans who can be shown with reliable, confirmed time-and-place details to have become infected as a result of the encounter, ahead of any other known human cases,” Relman says, “and then shown to have passed on the infection to others.” As for the lab-leak scenario, there would need to be “confirmed evidence of possession of the virus ahead of the first cases, and a likely mechanism for escape into humans” — all of which become less likely with the passage of time. “Finding the possible immediate parents of SARS-CoV-2 would help to understand the recent genomic/evolutionary history of the virus,” he adds, “but not necessarily how and where that history occurred.”
As it stands now, pandemic preparedness faces two simultaneous fronts. On the one hand, the world has experienced numerous pandemic and epidemic outbreaks in the last 20 years, including SARS, chikungunya, H1N1, Middle East Respiratory virus, several Ebola outbreaks, three outbreaks of norovirus, Zika, and now SARS-CoV-2. Speaking of coronaviruses, says Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “it’s hard to imagine there aren’t variants” in bats with mortality rates approaching MERS’ 30 percent that also have “a transmissibility that is much more efficient. And that is terrifying.” Baric is emphatic that genetic research with viruses is essential to staying ahead of the threat.
Yet according to Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, lab-release dangers are growing as well. The risk increases in proportion with the number of labs handling bioweapons and potential pandemic pathogens (more than 1,500 globally in 2010), he says, many of them, like the Wuhan lab, located in urban areas close to international airports. “The most dramatic expansion has occurred in China during the last four years — driven as an arms-race-style reaction to biodefense expansion in the U.S., Europe, and Japan,” Ebright wrote in an email to Undark. “China opened two new BSL-4 facilities, in Wuhan and in Harbin, in the last four years,” he added, “and has announced plans to establish a network of hundreds of new BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs.”
Meanwhile, squabbles over SARS-CoV-2’s origins continue, some of them heated. During a recent exchange on Twitter, Chan was compared to a QAnon supporter and an insurrectionist. A few months prior, she had tweeted about issues of research integrity and stated that if the actions of scientists and journal editors were to obscure the origins of the virus, then those individuals would be complicit in the deaths of millions of people. (Chan has since deleted that tweet, which she says she regrets posting.)
“Tempers are high,” Nielsen says, making it hard for qualified scientists to have any sort of serious discussion.
In Australia, Petrovksy says he is trying to stay above the fray. He says he was warned to avoid speaking publicly about his modeling findings. “A lot of people advised us ‘even if it’s good science, don’t talk about it. It will have a negative impact on your vaccine development. You will get attacked; they will try to discredit you.'” But in the end, that’s not what happened, says Petrovsky. Last year, amid the origins debate, his team became the first in the Southern Hemisphere to take a vaccine for Covid-19 into human clinical trials.
“If we are at the point where all science is politicized and no one cares about truth and only being politically correct,” he says, “we may as well give up and shut down and stop doing science.”
Charles Schmidt is a recipient of the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award. His work has appeared in Science, Nature Biotechnology, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, and The Washington Post, among other publications.