Recently, the so-called lab-leak hypothesis has reared its head again. Injected back into the public conversation surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea proposes that SARS-CoV-2 emerged (either unintentionally or intentionally) from virology research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) rather than from a zoonotic transmission event from an animal host to a human. The arc of the lab-leak hypothesis is long and complex, and in a June Vanity Fair article, journalist Katherine Eban covered the ins and outs of the story in great detail.
The Cliffs Notes of the serpentine story are essentially as follows: There was gain-of-function research involving coronaviruses going on at the WIV for years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak detected in Wuhan sometime in late 2019. Such research examines the infective capacity of viruses by endowing them with abilities in the lab beyond those that they currently possess in nature. Although Wuhan’s Huanan wholesale market, in which crowds move among vendors with live animals in tight quarters, was singled out by many researchers as the putative source of the zoonotic event that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, others—including a few scientists and many nonscientists such as politicians, pundits, and amateur “researchers”—seized on the WIV as a potential source of SARS-CoV-2. Amid the confusion, fear, and uncertainty that accompanied the virus’s spread in early and mid-2020, the Chinese government, in typical fashion, appeared to obfuscate more than illuminate.
Almost immediately after COVID-19 was recognized, the scientific community seemed to coalesce around the idea that the most parsimonious explanation for COVID-19’s origin was zoonotic transmission, as seen in previous disease outbreaks such as the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s. In February 2020, 27 prominent researchers, organized by Peter Daszak, president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, signed and published a statement in The Lancet expressing their distaste for the lab-leak hypothesis, which by that point had been touted by then-President Donald Trump and individuals in his orbit. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the authors of The Lancet letter wrote.
This spring, new intelligence emerged that three researchers working on gain-of-function studies at the WIV were sickened with COVID-19–like symptoms in November 2019. In addition, new information has recently come to light about the role that some journals and researchers have played in championing the zoonotic transmission model while downplaying the lab-leak hypothesis, without adequate data to support either route. These and other revelations have caused some scientists to soften their criticism of the lab-leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory and encourage continued investigation into the virus’s origins.
The stark reality at this point in the circuitous saga is this: there is not yet enough concrete supporting evidence for either the lab-leak hypothesis or the zoonosis model to lead a reasonable person to conclude that one or the other is the true origin of SARS-CoV-2. There’s no clincher for the zoonotic hypothesis, either in the form of a clear intermediate animal host or a definitive genetic link between bat coronaviruses and the pathogen that gave rise to a global outbreak. Similarly, the lab-leak hypothesis lacks evidence that decisively traces the origin of SARS-CoV-2 back to the WIV or any other laboratory.
While the absolute truth behind the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins may never be known, the ordeal has highlighted the perils of political intrusion and personal bias on the slow and painstaking processes necessary to uncover the science underlying complex situations. For myself, as a science journalist, this evolving episode has also provided an opportunity to pause and examine my own assumptions.
The Scientist reported faithfully on events surrounding the origins of COVID-19. Back on January 23, 2020, when the global death toll was just 18 people, we ran a story that collated comments from researchers studying existing sequence data on the novel virus to explore its origin and biology. The very next day, we featured a Q&A with Daszak on the search for an animal species that may have harbored the virus before it jumped to humans. Daszak’s conflicts of interest, undisclosed by The Lancet and featured prominently in Eban’s recent article and others, did make an appearance in The Scientist’s story, which noted his collaborations with scientists studying coronaviruses at WIV (though we failed to mention that his organization helps disburse US government funds that support research at the WIV). Moreover, both early stories in The Scientist followed the available evidence and reflected the general consensus among scientists that a zoonotic transmission event likely sparked the COVID-19 pandemic (and this was nearly two months before it was classified as such by the World Health Organization).
Later stories, written and edited as the lab-leak hypothesis first started making headlines, considered the possibility but consistently noted the lack of data supporting such an origin story. “Theory that Coronavirus Escaped from a Lab Lacks Evidence,” read the headline on one that appeared in The Scientist in March 2020. Similarly, we noted the open questions surrounding the animal-origin hypothesis. “Which Species Transmit COVID-19 to Humans? We’re Still Not Sure,” was the headline on another later that month.
This second story treats the zoonotic model of the pandemic’s origins as the prevailing thinking, reflecting what The Scientist heard from the scientific community. Indeed, we noted the WHO’s decision to focus on the virus’s animal origins in February of this year. In a May editorial expressing my frustration that so much misinformation was flying around, I myself was dismissive of the lab-leak idea, writing: “No, there is not sufficient evidence to say [SARS-CoV-2] originated in a Chinese lab.” But maybe we, and many in the scientific and popular press, were missing something. Just recently, the world has learned that some in science have been calling for a deeper look at the lab-leak hypothesis all along, and premier scientific journals have been reluctant (at best) to publish such viewpoints.
We did our best to follow the science over the past year and a half—noting the dominant sense among researchers that an animal origin was most likely, and the exclusive endorsement of that view by the WHO in February 2021. Yet the short shrift I gave the hypothesis in that May editorial might have led a reasonable reader to conclude that I was lumping it in with absolutely baseless conspiracy theories regarding microchips in vaccines and purposely inflated death tolls. Maybe I was. Indeed, I think we could have done better at exploring the credible voices expressing various viewpoints in the scientific community. We could have done this by reflecting the fact that a majority of researchers expressed a belief that the pandemic originated from a zoonotic event, but a few were suggesting that the lab leak model bore closer investigation. This would have avoided the problem of introducing false balance to stories on the origin SARS-CoV-2; even today, as scientists all the way up to President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci have voiced support for the continued investigation into all possible origins, the majority support the zoonotic transmission hypothesis as the most likely.
Nevertheless, given the lack of intelligence about the virus’s origins on any account, it’s becoming clear that the lab-leak hypothesis should not have been pushed to the fringes of the conversation. So why, early in the pandemic when even less was known about SARS-CoV-2, did the scientific community and many media outlets seem to be doing just that?
I believe it had a lot to do with the way the lab-leak hypothesis was promoted by a vocal minority early on, despite a lack of evidence. It was too eagerly embraced, too fervently pushed by individuals with xenophobia and conspiratorial mindsets and whom we had reason to distrust, including compromised credibility and ulterior political motives. Many of these people either feigned knowledge of solid evidence supporting it or overstated a shaky case based on circumstantial evidence, not data. When we asked virology experts about it, they supported the zoonotic hypothesis as most likely, and we reported that back to our readers. But it appears the zoonotic model too was pushed to the fore by some in the research community lacking fulsome supporting evidence.
In my own thinking (and in my leadership of The Scientist), was I dismissive of the lab-leak hypothesis because it had become the COVID-19 origin story for some politicians and pundits who had no business being so sure of their suppositions? Perhaps. Did I fail to look past the loudest voices in the press and in science to carefully consider a competing, but not widely embraced, position? Yes.
Nevertheless, I hold that I and The Scientist consistently adhered to our guiding principle of fact-based reporting in navigating the twists and turns of the saga. Our lodestar in reporting about this specific issue, as with all the other science surrounding the pandemic and everything else we cover, is this: direct evidence is paramount to making any claim. I agree that the lab-leak hypothesis deserves to be investigated, in parallel with ongoing efforts to explore the animal-origin model, using the same sound, impartial methods that scientists deploy to study less-controversial phenomena.
But perhaps this episode should educate us all that when we stir politics and partisan passions into a quest that is by its very nature scientific, we court dangerous outcomes and further obscure and delay the emergence of broader truths. It’s also a reminder that the scientific community is not a monolith. When facts support an overriding majority view, such as the acceptance that anthropogenic climate change is real and worsening, we as science journalists must follow suit. But before evidence supports one stream of thought or the other, it is our duty to pursue reasonable avenues of inquiry and chart whichever course gets us most efficiently to the truth.
This is a difficult challenge because the pace (and tone) of politics and of science are so radically mismatched. For science, patience is key, and hype is anathema. Scientists, journalists, pundits, and politicians alike must wait for the data to come in before making any claims, especially those that have the potential to make an unfortunate situation even worse.