Does it Matter Where the Coronavirus Came From: Yes and No

The big flap that erupted in May surrounding the exact origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 (called SARS-CoV-2) demonstrates what happens when politics intrudes too forcefully into science. Until then, the viral origin story was presented to us in both mainstream media and scientific communications as settled on a “natural origin” theme that involves bat coronavirus strains mutating until they achieved the potential to infect and harm humans. The “lab leak” theory—that the virus is the result of an accident at a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China—has been emphatically seen by those sources as a false conspiracy theory manufactured for purely political reasons.

         Then, of course, some things changed. A vague report of three laboratory workers at the Wuhan lab requiring hospitalization in November 2019 for an illness that is reminiscent of COVID-19 surfaced. Few details are available, and the Chinese government is apparently not being particularly cooperative with scientists investigating the virus’ origins, but the workers’ illnesses make the lab leak theory seem more credible. President Biden ordered intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 further and Facebook stopped censoring posts that discuss the lab leak theory.

         In a penetrating article in Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop notes that many journalists simply assumed that because the Chinese lab leak theory was promulgated by former President Trump and seemed to serve a political purpose relevant to his campaign for a second term, then it must be false. Now that the lab leak theory seems to have gained credibility, that assumption is being called into question. Allsop wrote:

To my mind, staking out the proper boundary between science and politics has been the defining journalistic challenge of the pandemic; it might well be impossible to pinpoint, though we could, collectively, have been more thoughtful about looking, and the errors around the lab-leak reflect that failure.

         Scientists will now pursue the origins of the coronavirus in more detail and perhaps at some point the question of where the virus came from will be resolved. It is reasonable to ask the question, however, what difference it will make. In one very important way the origins of the virus make absolutely no difference: the need to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. From that public health vantage point, the controversy about whether the COVID-19 pathogen has a natural or laboratory origin is a distraction. The virus is very much with us, we know its genetic structure, we are tracking its mutations, and we have vaccines that offer protective immunity.

Key To Preventing Future Coronavirus Pandemics

         There are at least two reasons, however, why the origin controversy does make a difference, first because it is important in any effort to prevent future coronavirus pandemics and second because it can tell us something about the way science news is reported. Let’s take these two in turn.

         We are now familiar with the concept that viruses change their basic genetic structure at an alarmingly rapid rate, albeit faster for some viruses than others. Every time a copy of a viral RNA or DNA molecule is made there is a chance that some errors in laying down the base pairs will occur. Most of these have no effect on the virus’ actual characteristics, called its phenotype, whereas some are lethal to the virus and prevent further replication. Still others make the virus more “fit,” more able, that is, to infect its host. Bats have seemingly developed immunological mechanisms that permit them to coexist with the kind of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but over time and with increasing contact with humans, bat viruses can mutate to forms that will infect humans, replicate efficiently in human cells, and cause disease. This natural origin theory is still the prevailing view among many scientists.

Until recently, scientific consensus seemed to hold that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated in bats (image: Shutterstock).

         Knowing the details of how the virus managed to mutate to a form capable of harming people would obviously be important information in any effort to thwart future pandemics. In fact, that is exactly the work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Scientists there study strains of coronavirus to see which are likely to become infectious and which carry the potential to produce serious human illness. It is that work that is currently at the heart of the controversy. In one scenario, Wuhan virologists created SARS-CoV-2 as part of their efforts to understand how these viruses mutate and how they can infect human cells. One strategy for doing this is to induce what is called a “gain of function” mutation. Instead of waiting for nature to produce a mutation that makes a virus more infectious, scientists can induce the mutation in the laboratory and see how the protein products of the gene bearing the mutation work. In a gain of function scenario, the artificially induced mutation allows the virus to do something it couldn’t originally do.

         While gain of function research provides a pathway to inferring important insights into viral pathology, it is also controversial for obvious reasons: do we really want scientists making more dangerous viruses in their laboratories? For that reason, the U.S. federal government put a moratorium on gain of function research during the Obama administration, but it was revived in 2017. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) funds research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but NAIAD director Anthony Fauci stated emphatically at a Senate hearing that it has never funded gain of function mutation research there. One scenario of the lab leak hypothesis is that SARS-CoV-2 was created when scientists induced a gain of function mutation in the virus and then the virus was accidentally released from the lab.[1]

The lab leak theory for COVID-19 posits that the causative virus was created in a laboratory in Wuhan, China and released accidentally (image: Shutterstock).

         Some scientists believe that careful examination of the virus’ genetic sequence suggests a natural origin. If the Chinese government were to cooperate with scientists investigating the origins of the virus, it could make public all the sequences of coronavirus that the Wuhan laboratory has created, and these could then be compared to the genetic sequence of SARS-C0V-2. Although the lab has published some such sequences—and none so far match—it is believed that the lab has not released sequences for all the viruses on which it has worked.

         We can only hope that Chinese scientists are permitted to disclose exactly what manipulations they did perform of coronaviruses and also which strains infected the three lab workers in November 2019. Without that information, it will be tough for scientists to definitively rule out the lab leak theory. That puts us at a disadvantage in any battle to suppress future coronavirus outbreaks.

Leap To a Conclusion

         Our second reason for believing the origins of the COVID-19 virus are an important scientific topic is that they tell us some profound things about the way journalists are approaching science these days. In this case, journalists seem to have leapt to the conclusion that the lab leak theory is incorrect because they were suspicious of one of its promoters—the Trump administration. While we categorically reject the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 is really a bioweapon, it is important to acknowledge that we do not have evidence that permits us to rule out the accidental lab leak theory. And, as the well-known saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Some journalists and perhaps many scientists in this case rejected the lab leak theory because they didn’t like the politics with which it was associated. That’s a breakdown of both good journalistic procedure and of science. The lab leak theory appears to be tenable, even if it provides fuel to some ugly conspiracy theories. China is not helping by doing everything it can to thwart a proper inquiry. We need to do what we can, though, to complete as thorough an investigation as possible into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

[1] We are aware that some have insisted the release was deliberate, but that idea does strike us as part of an elaborate and fanciful conspiracy theory that lacks credibility.

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