We need answers to prevent another pandemic

Posted 7/1/21

It’s unfortunate we still don’t know with any certainty the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 and triggered a pandemic in 2020 that wreaked havoc on economies and has …

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We need answers to prevent another pandemic


It’s unfortunate we still don’t know with any certainty the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 and triggered a pandemic in 2020 that wreaked havoc on economies and has killed nearly 4 million people worldwide so far. 

Until earlier this year, most people were not informed of any legitimate challenges to the prevailing hypothesis that the virus came from wet markets in Wuhan, China. The national media ignored virologists who speculated the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and social media companies, such as Facebook, banned anyone from discussing it.

Now, the lab-origin hypothesis is being covered throughout the media and the stories are being shared. It’s unfortunate that it took over a year before any serious investigation was initiated, and so we’re way behind the ball on this one. This is especially problematic since the main barrier to further investigation is the Chinese government. 

Based on the evidence we have, the natural origin hypothesis cannot be ruled out, but neither can the lab-origin hypothesis. One key piece of evidence that would help us unravel the mystery is in the hands of the Chinese — the data on WIV’s research — and the Chinese Communist Party has been astoundingly obstinate in granting any meaningful access to it. 

Writing in the New York Times last week, Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina information scientist, provided an excellent, detailed timeline of the information on the origins of the virus since 2019, and the efforts by the Chinese government along the way to stymie the investigation. 

“While the Chinese government’s obstruction may keep us from knowing for sure whether the virus … came from the wild directly or through a lab in Wuhan, or if genetic experimentation was involved, what we know already is troubling,” Tufekci writes. 

Tufekci recounts that, if COVID-19 came from WIV, it wouldn’t be the first time a disease spread as a result of accidents at research labs. A 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England escaped via a drainage pipe from a lab operating at the highest biosafety level, BSL-4. The last person to die of smallpox was infected as a result of a lab incident in 1978.

In 2012, in a survey of reporting systems in American labs that are researching dangerous pathogens, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted 11 incidents of lab-acquired infections over the course of six years, often in BSL-3 labs.

In January 2014, a benign flu virus sample at a CDC lab was accidentally contaminated with a deadly virus, and the problem wasn’t detected until months later. The following June, the same lab accidentally exposed about 62 employees to anthrax, and in July, vials of live smallpox virus were found in a storage room at the NIH. 

Research into dangerous pathogens can provide enormous benefits for public health in terms of preventing the spread of diseases, and like with many great human endeavors, such as flight and space travel, there are risks. But a great way to ensure mistakes are repeated is to keep the cause a secret. 

The incidents in America and Britain were widely reported and labs shared the information far more openly than WIV operating under the authority of the Chinese government. As a result of the openness, better practices can be implemented so that valuable research can continue with greater levels of safety to the public. 

In May, science writer Nicholas Wade wrote a piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists weighing the evidence of the two competing hypotheses. Wade concluded that the evidence in support of the virus having been engineered through gain-of-function research to be far more compelling, with fewer holes, than the natural origin hypothesis, while acknowledging the latter can’t be ruled out. 

Tufekci disputes that position and argues that, if the lab-origin hypothesis is correct, it was likely a matter of accidental exposure from a lack of proper safety protocols in the course of research at WIV.

Whatever the case, it’s a possibility that an accident at a Chinese laboratory led to the most destructive global pandemic any of us have seen in our lifetimes. 

Thanks to the mainstream media turning a blind eye and social media companies suppressing discussions on the matter, it took some time before any serious pressure was placed on the Chinese government to be more forthcoming with the data on the WIV’s research. In May, President Joe Biden ordered the intelligence community to launch a new investigation into the matter and set a 90-day deadline for a report on the findings to be released. Federal officials have questioned if that deadline will be met. 

This isn’t just a matter of determining culpability. Even if we answered definitively that an accident at the WIV caused the pandemic, it would be a stretch to hope China would ever compensate the globe for the mistake. What really matters, as Tufekci explained, is this: accidents happen. The kinds of virology research that may be linked to the 2020 pandemic continue in labs across the world. Knowing if this was an accident and how it occurred is the only way we’ll prevent it from happening again.