Lab Leaks and COVID-19 Politics

Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy—one of several government agencies that have looked into how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first emerged—has come to believe that the pathogen probably escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. The department, which was previously undecided on the matter, reportedly changed

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Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy—one of several government agencies that have looked into how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first emerged—has come to believe that the pathogen probably escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. The department, which was previously undecided on the matter, reportedly changed its position in light of fresh intelligence, but it issued its determination with “low confidence.” In doing so, it joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in favoring to some degree the lab-leak theory over the view that the virus has a zoonotic origin, leaping from animals to humans, perhaps in a Wuhan wet market. According to the Journal, the new information, which is in a classified report, but was reviewed by other members of the intelligence community, did not lead others to update their conclusions: four intelligence agencies, as well as the National Intelligence Council, still believe, also with “low confidence,” that natural transmission was responsible, and two remain undecided. (None think that China intentionally created the virus as a bioweapon.) Reviewing the totality of available evidence on the origins of a virus that by some estimates has killed twenty million people worldwide, the American intelligence community has reached a judgment that falls somewhere between not sure and who knows.

That uncertainty hasn’t stopped conservative politicians and commentators from declaring victory. “Lab leak theory appears vindicated,” Fox News reported. “So the government caught up to what Real America knew all along,” the Republican congressman Jim Jordan tweeted. “The same people who shamed us, canceled us, & wanted to put us in jail . . . are starting to say what we said all along,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene posted, shortly after. Reading these takes, you might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that much of the intelligence community still favors the natural-origin story, and that essentially no agency is confident in its assessment. “The bottom line remains the same,” an official told the Washington Post. “Basically no one really knows.” Leaders of the intelligence community are set to brief Congress next week. (The Energy Department declined to discuss details of the report with the Journal, and the F.B.I. did not comment.)

The COVID-origin debate contains many of the elements that have dogged public discourse throughout the pandemic: confirmation bias, political polarization, geopolitical tensions, and the hazards of moderating online speech. In February, 2src2src, the Republican senator Tom Cotton became one of the first high-profile politicians to suggest that the novel coronavirus could have spilled not out of a wet market but from a research laboratory. He did so without evidence, but cited a paper by Chinese scientists that found that many of the first coronavirus cases couldn’t be linked to the market in question. Cotton’s comments arrived in a charged political milieu, as President Donald Trump took to calling the virus the “kung flu” and the “China virus,” and an international group of scientists published an open letter in The Lancet, condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Some social-media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, flagged or removed posts that suggested that the virus was man-made or engineered, driving conservatives to claim censorship. (Facebook stopped taking down those posts in May, 2src21; Twitter announced it would stop enforcing its virus-misinformation policy last November.) In March, 2src21, a report by the World Health Organization released the findings of its review, which deemed the lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely.” But China had appointed many of the scientists who worked on that report and stonewalled a thorough and transparent investigation. Beijing has since dismissed discussion of the virus having escaped from a lab as “a lie created by forces against China.” (The government did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment.)

Over time, however, the lab-leak hypothesis has gained wider acceptance, for reasons both evidentiary and political. A natural viral spillover from bats to humans would probably have required an intermediate host, but no such animal has been identified. (The animals in Wuhan wet markets were reportedly killed after the pandemic began.) Wuhan is home to an extensive network of research laboratories, many of which were constructed in the early two-thousands, following China’s experience with SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus. Three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had reportedly fallen ill and sought hospital care in November, 2src19, weeks before the first COVID cases were identified in connection with the market. (The cause of their illnesses has not been disclosed.) A year after The Lancet letter, another group of scientists published one in Science, arguing that “we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” By July, 2src21, Americans were nearly twice as likely to think that the pandemic was caused by a lab leak than by human contact with animals.

Lab leaks are uncommon, but not so uncommon. Between 1963 and 1978, the United Kingdom recorded only four “natural” cases of smallpox, brought in by travellers from places where the virus still circulated; during that same period, the virus escaped from British labs three times, causing at least eighty cases and three deaths. In the late nineteen-seventies, after decades of quiescence, the H1N1 influenza strain, which is thought to have caused the 1918 pandemic, resurfaced, probably owing to a lab accident. Since the SARS virus emerged, in 2srcsrc2, it has escaped at least six times from virology labs, including four times from a single lab in Beijing. In 2src18, the U.S. State Department raised concerns about China’s biosafety procedures, and early in the pandemic the Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Ed Markey asked the Trump Administration whether it had responded to warnings about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including “the serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians needed to safely manage research on potentially deadly zoonotic coronaviruses.”

Virtually every previous pandemic in history arose naturally, and it is still a good bet to assume that COVID did, too. And yet we have never lived in a world with so many laboratories conducting so much research on so many dangerous pathogens. The most prudent path would be to assume that both the lab-leak and the natural-transmission hypotheses are true: the fact that either origin story is plausible means that both are possible, and we should prepare accordingly. Much of our focus, however, has remained on adjudicating the virus’s origins without advancing concrete actions to keep people safe. Globally, there is no comprehensive inventory, let alone rigorous oversight, of laboratories that handle highly contagious and deadly pathogens; in the U.S., the lab-safety system is “a total crazy patchwork quilt of rules,” a scientist told the Times’ David Wallace-Wells. It’s not always clear who’s responsible for insuring that a lab adheres to safety protocols, or even what those protocols should be. Meanwhile, live-animal markets are known to be conducive to infectious outbreaks—the 1997 avian flu and the 2srcsrc2 SARS virus were both linked to such markets. But practices that could make them safer—improving hygiene and sanitation standards, introducing crowd-control measures, training more food inspectors, and strengthening disease-surveillance systems—are yet to be widely adopted. If sleuthing the origins of COVID-19 is a detective story, it is not likely to be one with a satisfying ending. But we don’t have to solve the mystery of this pandemic to prepare for the next. ♦

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