Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory Needs to Be Taken Seriously
Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory Needs to Be Taken Seriously
With so many conspiracy theorists embracing the view that the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory, it’s tempting to dismiss the idea out of hand. But it's important to keep an open mind — because the possibility of a lab leak still exists, and needs to be investigated.
Serious people are demanding a closer look at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There isn’t much evidence that a lab leak was the origin of the pandemic, but neither is there much evidence for any other scenario. Though scientists recently found somewhat related viruses harbored by bats in Laos, this doesn’t answer the key question of how the SARS-CoV-2 got into humans.
The issue has been politicized, and people have staked out sides. The lab leak side, in particular, has been associated with sensationalized media attention, including a Wall Street Journal op-ed article earlier this month under the headline, “Science Closes In on Covid’s Origins.” The first obvious flaw is that scientists aren’t closing in on Covid’s origin.
The piece was written by physicist Richard Muller and breast cancer doctor Stephen Quay, who is the author of a coming book on the origins of the virus. A number of virologists and other relevant experts denounced the article, including Purdue University professor David Sanders, who called me to detail what he described as pseudoscientific claims and nonsensical technical language.
But a flawed argument for the lab leak idea can’t be taken as evidence against it. Sanders himself says he doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet either way to take a stand on Covid’s origin, and he has advocated for better oversight and safety in laboratories that study viruses.
The scientists who are making reasonable arguments for a better lab leak investigation start with the fact that the bats harboring the most closely related virus to SARS-CoV-2 live far from Wuhan, where the pandemic was first identified. And the Wuhan Institute of Virology houses the world’s biggest collection of bat coronaviruses. The institute could settle the matter by providing complete access to its labs, and records of all the stored viruses and experiments done on them, assuming none of this has been destroyed.
One problem with the Journal column by Muller and Quay is that it conflated the idea of a lab leak with the theory that the virus was altered in the lab. The crux of their argument was that the virus started out unusually adapted to replicating in humans, and therefore was unlikely to have jumped directly from another species.
According to Sanders, that assertion “is simply wrong and silly and unscientific.” He said that though he’s a virologist, he didn’t know what the authors meant by the claim that the virus was “99.5% optimized for human infection.” The problem wasn’t just that the number was questionable, but that virology doesn’t recognize optimization as a measurable, quantifiable property at all. “I don’t know what 99.5% optimized could possibly mean,” he told me.
The article also referred to some studies of the “stem” of the virus — a term with which Sanders was unfamiliar. That was just the beginning of his list of complaints.
I then called Quay, one of the op-ed’s authors, who said the “stem” of the virus was a term his co-author, Richard Muller, wrongly used instead of spike protein. Quay added that his “99.5% optimized” claim was based on his own analysis of a paper from the lab of evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. In that work, Bloom and his colleagues introduced several thousand mutations into SARS-CoV-2, and only a small number made the virus more efficient at infecting humans.
Why hadn’t Bloom interpreted his own results in the way Quay did? “He said he never calculated it, which I think is a little cheesy,” Quay told me.
Bloom couldn’t be reached for comment, though he did try to clarify the situation in a Twitter thread.
In an enlightening panel discussion hosted by Science magazine in late September, Bloom argued that the lab leak idea remained plausible. He referred to the existence of grant proposals to collect and study bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan institute, including a proposal in 2018 by the New York-based research nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to genetically alter bat viruses as part of an effort to understand which ones are likely to pose a danger to us. The particular changes they had in mind would have added a component called a furin cleavage site, which is one characteristic that sets SARS-CoV-2 apart from its closest bat virus relatives.
The group had collaborated with the Wuhan institute in the past, and it’s worrisome that there was intent to do an experiment that might have made bat coronaviruses more dangerous to us. The proposal had been sent to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where it was apparently rejected, but scientists interviewed for a recent piece in the Intercept said they were unsure whether some or all of the project might still have been carried out.
Another virologist on the Science panel, Linfa Wang of the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, said he thought the Wuhan lab should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But science isn’t a criminal trial, and normally the burden of proof is on a new claim that would contradict or alter established science.
Here, there is no established science — just an open question with several viable possibilities. If anything, the burden of proof should be on those who might expose people to something dangerous — such as new chemicals or new drugs. For any lab dealing with dangerous viruses, the burden of proof should be on the lab to show what they’re doing is reasonably safe.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology hasn’t done enough to show it’s been operating safely, and that’s a reasonable argument in favor of continued probing into the possible lab origin of the virus. It’s important to keep the focus on that, and not on the uninformed speculation and conspiracy theories out there.