Recently there has been an upsurge of interest into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the one that causes covid-19, with speculation that it may not have originated by mutating spontaneously into a form that could transfer from animals to humans but that it may have been leaked from a research laboratory that does work on such viruses. Most proponents of the lab leak theory have suggested that the leak was accidental but a few have suggested a darker possibility of deliberate release.
I have been trying to make sense of the debate and found this article by Mara Hvistendahl to be helpful in sorting through the various claims. Hvistendahl had been in China when the avian flu virus broke out in 2013 and she had visited the lab of a prominent researcher and avian flu expert Chen Hualan who had been doing the so-called ‘gain of function’ research that is seen by some as an indicator that the covid-19 virus did not come about by accident.
That work involved tweaking pathogens in order to study how they might become more contagious, a type of study that is often lumped under the shorthand “gain of function.” Proponents of such experiments argued that a better understanding of how viruses are transmitted from one species to the next could help public health experts ward off natural outbreaks. Critics worried that instead of aiding in global health, her research could spark a pandemic.
(The broad label “gain of function” can apply to less risky research, but critics are concerned mainly with research that involves making pathogens more transmissible in a way that might pose a risk to humans.) Understanding that debate is key to grasping how and why the mainstream media has charted such an abrupt shift, from branding speculation about a lab leak a conspiracy theory to enthusiastically, and prematurely, embracing it.
She discussed Chen’s earlier work back in 2013 that had caused a stir.
Shortly before my trip, she and her colleagues had published a paper in Science detailing a massive gain-of-function experiment with guinea pigs. It had involved swapping gene segments from H5N1 with those from the H1N1 swine virus, then infecting guinea pigs with the hybrid viruses. Her team found that they could get the virus to leap from one animal to another by switching out a single gene. The guinea pigs stood in for humans.
Even as China was in the midst of an outbreak with a clearly natural origin, critics worried that risky research on pathogens could give rise to a worse one. But that was eight years ago, before the discourse on such research had geopolitical implications.
This gain of function research was controversial even then but the intense debate stayed within the scientific community. But no more. It is now a hot political topic.
UNTIL RECENTLY, the suggestion that a virus could leak from a lab had no correlation with one’s political beliefs. The first SARS virus leaked from labs several times — including at least twice from the National Institute of Virology in Beijing. A 1977 outbreak of H1N1 in the Soviet Union and China is believed to have been caused by Soviet scientists experimenting with a live virus in a lab. A number of leading American laboratories have had significant safety breaches as well, including at the CDC.
Before the pandemic, the scientific press regularly covered such risks. In a 2017 article on the opening of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Nature raised concerns about biosafety. The notion of a lab leak was also floated by Science early in the Covid-19 pandemic in an article that also discussed a natural spillover.
BUT THE MOMENT of correction we’re now in is dangerous in its own way. There is still no direct evidence to support a lab leak, and many scientists with no stake in the outcome still say that a natural origin is more likely. Scientific consensus has not, in fact, shifted toward a lab origin. But some pundits with the risky combination of a lack of expertise and an agenda have argued that a lab leak caused the pandemic, case closed.
The most honest experts say simply that they don’t know. “We’re not taking an advocacy position on one scenario being more likely than another,” Bloom, the evolutionary biologist, said in a Q&A published by his institute. “As a scientist it’s important to clearly convey that there is scientific uncertainty — especially because this is a hot-button topic.”
In these days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the scientific from the political on a wide range of issues.