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What’s Behind the Resurgence of the Lab Leak Theory?

What’s Behind the Resurgence of the Lab Leak Theory?

Since the pandemic began, the internet has been awash with misinformation and conspiracy theories over every aspect of COVID-19. The origin of the virus is no exception. Dismissed as a Sinophobic conspiracy for the majority of last year, claims that the coronavirus could have been engineered in and/or escaped from a Wuhan lab have now gone from fringe claim to serious consideration. 

The three main virus origin theories are as follows:

  1. The virus evolved naturally and an infected animal spread it to humans.
  2. The virus evolved naturally but an employee at the lab became infected from a sample and accidentally "leaked" it into the community.
  3. Scientists manipulating virus samples accidentally or intentionally released the virus.

In the past month, U.S. President Joe Biden has called for intelligence to redouble efforts to investigate the virus’ origin – including the Chinese lab theory – while Facebook announced it would no longer flag the lab origin claim as misinformation.

Up until recently, it was widely accepted that the virus likely passed from animal to humans, with the earliest cases linked to a wet market in Wuhan. So what happened?

There’s no one single compelling point that has led to the lab spillover theory re-entering mainstream discourse, but a series of events and new information that have sparked the change.

The experts Logically spoke to all erred on the side that the animal to human transmission theory is the most likely, but that there are lessons to be learned about lab safety regardless.

Here are the key events that changed the discourse this year:

  • A Wall Street Journal story from May, on a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report, said that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens, became ill in 2019 with a flu-like illness and sought hospital care. This was several weeks before China acknowledged the first case of the new disease in the community.

  • Several prominent scientists from across the world published an open letter to the World Health Organization in March, saying that its previous investigation into the virus origins which concluded the lab spillover theory was “extremely unlikely” was flawed. WHO issued the report jointly with Chinese scientists, using data that was shared by them.

  • Former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote a compelling argument for the lab spillover theory in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in May. Wade suggested that COVID-19 has features that signal it could have been bioengineered. He focused on the furin cleavage site – a feature that helps it to enter cells – in COVID-19’s spike protein and pointed out that it is absent in other coronaviruses. He quotes David Baltimore, a virologist and former president of the California Institute of Technology, who said the furin cleavage site is the “smoking gun” for the lab leak theory. Baltimore has since backtracked on the “smoking gun” comments, saying he overstated the case.

  • In May, 18 prominent scientists published a letter in the journal Science, saying a new investigation is needed because “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”

  • In April, a biotech entrepreneur, Yuri Deigin detailed on Medium how the WIV undertook “gain-of-function” research, i.e. medical research that alters an organism or disease to increase its ability to cause disease. He said “from a technical standpoint, it would not be difficult for a modern virologist to create such a strain” as the new coronavirus. He didn’t want to push one-sided theories, but simply highlight that it was possible.

  • The latter point has been linked to the fact that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) once funded and since terminated a grant to EcoHealth Alliance that funded the study of bat coronaviruses at WIV in April 2020. 

Gregory Koblentz is an Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. He explained that the events that recently pushed for the lab theory “had different impacts at different times for different reasons.”

The claims that NIH funded gain of function research at WIV are not new and have had a distinctly partisan agenda.

“The claims that NIH funded gain of function research at WIV are not new and have had a distinctly partisan agenda from the beginning; as a way to implicate Dr. Anthony Fauci who was subject to an escalating campaign of harassment by Donald Trump and his supporters,” Koblentz explained.

In his view, the major turning point for the lab escape theory was WHO’s report which concluded the theory was “extremely unlikely” based on very little evidence or analysis.

“The letter in March by a group of respected scientists calling for a more thorough investigation brought further attention to this scenario and made it more respectable for scientists and experts to discuss it seriously without being associated with the allegations of a lab leak that the Trump Administration used in a blame-shifting, racist manner.”

He believes the Nicholas Wade article, including Baltimore’s quote, is what made this issue much more prominent within the media, but argued The Wall Street Journal article did not say anything that was not already known.

“The ‘fact sheet’ published by the State Department in the last days of the Trump Administration mentioned the same vague information about sick workers at WIV,” he explained.“This article received a lot of attention because of the priming effect of the Wade article.”

So let’s look into some of the big claims and just how compelling they are.

One of the key points that has been raised recently is: why hasn’t the animal source for COVID-19 been found? 

“For what would have been a one-off event, I do not think that it is even slightly surprising that a specific animal source has not been found,” said James Wood, an expert in epidemiology and control of zoonotic diseases from Cambridge Infectious Diseases.

“There is no need whatsoever for gain of function experiments in order to explain the emergence of COVID-19,” he said, adding he and others in his sector have been predicting and working against such a wildlife viral emergence for years.

But what about the U.S. intelligence’s new interest in the theory? 

U.S. intelligence has investigated the origins of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Biden ordered a new assessment when he took office. 

In May, the intelligence community told the White House that the two most likely scenarios for the origin of the pandemic were a natural zoonotic spillover event and a laboratory accident, but concluded that it could not reach a “definitive conclusion” on which one. A majority of agencies determined that there was “insufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

“As many keen observers of the intelligence process have pointed out, there is an important distinction between secrets – information that is purposefully kept hidden –and mysteries, intentions, and outcomes that are highly contingent and difficult to predict,” Koblentz said.

“Intelligence agencies are designed to steal secrets, not solve mysteries. Treating the origin of the novel, highly contagious coronavirus virus that emerged unexpectedly in central China in late 2019 as a secret, and not as a mystery, will not bring us any closer to the ‘definitive conclusion’ that the Biden Administration is seeking.”

The lab-leak theory is deeply political, with key figures pushing the theory into the mainstream because of an ongoing fear that China is a threat to global security. 

Some have said that the lab-leak theory is deeply political, with key figures helping to push the theory back into the mainstream because of an ongoing fear that China is a threat to global security. 

Former president Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly promoted the lab-leak theory in 2020, saying the administration had evidence for the theory – proof Trump later refused to expand upon when asked. Critics have since said Trump was aggravating the ongoing tension with China and shirking responsibility in exacerbating the pandemic.

There have also been reports that suggest a clear bias from intelligence figures. One former State Department official who is said to have knowledge of official research into the lab-leak theory, told CNN “the way they did their work was suspicious as hell.”

The official added: “It smelled like they were just fishing to justify predetermined conclusions and cut out experts who could critique their ‘science.’”

Finding the origins of past disease outbreaks have been a long and arduous process. It took Chinese scientists 14 years to conclusively say horseshoe bats were the source for the SARS in 2002 and, despite decades of research, scientists still do not know where Ebola came from, he said. It is unsurprising COVID-19’s origin remains unclear.

As for claims the furin cleavage point highlight or the suggestion that COVID-19 could have been bioengineered, this is not necessarily the case. Benoît Barbeau is an associate professor at the University of Montreal who has written about why the lab leak theory has re-entered discussions. He does not find this aspect of COVID-19 a “smoking gun” for the lab theory.

The furin cleavage site does differ from its closest relatives, but coronaviruses are everywhere in every species, he explained, and the amount we know about them likely pales in comparison to the amount out there. 

“There might be a big chunk of information we’re missing and in that chunk could explain why we're seeing that unexpected specific part of the protein.”

Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, told Nature that the site probably evolved multiple times because it provides an evolutionary advantage.

Next, is the fact that three staff members from the WIV fell seriously ill with COVID-like symptoms before the pandemic. Experts say this does not carry much weight as this coincided with the flu season, and the symptoms overlap with several other illnesses. Officials have “been very clear and quick in saying that they haven't found any antibodies against” COVID-19 for any of the staff who were working at the WIV, Professor Barbeau said. Ultimately, people have a choice to believe this or be suspicious of this.

But, what if the WIV were conducting gain-of-function research? 

They likely were, but this isn’t unheard of nor suggestive of something concerning. 

A multinational group of 15 scientists working at the WIV received $600,000 (£430116) of U.S. public funds between 2015 and 2020 to investigate whether bat coronaviruses posed a risk to humans. 

As part of this, experts combined two different coronaviruses to create a more dangerous version and found it had the potential to infect humans, according to a 2015 paper the researchers published in The scientists themselves wrote that the research presented a crossroads of gain-of-function research, but the risk of creating dangerous pathogens needed to be weighed against the need to prepare for dangerous pandemics. The WIV has carried out research on coronaviruses for years because these pathogens are endemic to the region where it's located.

In addition, the WIV is a BSL-4 lab - known as “maximum containment” labs as they have the strictest requirements for technology, procedures, and training to prevent the escape of a dangerous pathogen, Koblentz said. 

Researchers can work with dangerous pathogens without coming into direct contact with them through Class III Biosafety Cabinet​s, also called glove boxes, or by using “spacesuits” in a suit laboratory, where they wear the most sophisticated type of personal protective equipment (PPE) available​.

There isn’t enough evidence to say it happened, nor enough to rule it out.

While in theory, it is possible COVID-19 could have come from the WIV or another Wuhan lab, we have no direct or circumstantial evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was present at a lab there. Like with much of the evidence on the lab leak, there isn’t enough evidence to say it happened, nor enough to rule it out.

Regardless, accidents do happen in labs, and two of the experts interviewed hoped discussions over the lab spillover could trigger regulation and transparent checks on them. “Realistically, we will likely never be able to reach a ‘definitive conclusion’ on how SARS-CoV-2 first entered the human population and emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, but what we can do is better understand the conditions that give rise to pandemics and develop policies that reduce these conditions,” Koblentz said. 

“I think the fact that we can’t rule out a laboratory in Wuhan as a source of the outbreak means that we have to do a better job ensuring that all labs are safe.”

Barbeau agreed, suggesting an International Committee could visit labs to ensure safety measures are followed effectively and follow up on risks. 

Perhaps the best we could hope for from the pandemic, at least for now, is a learning curve and changes rather than definitive answers. 

Ruchira Sharma is a staff writer at the i newspaper where she often covers online culture, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. She is interested in the role of influencers in perpetuating bad information, and why people are drawn to conspiracy movements. She can be reached on Twitter @RuchoSharma

 

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