The Washington Post

We are asking the wrong question about the origins of covid


The Energy Department, in a recent classified intelligen­ce report, concluded with “low confidence” that the coronaviru­s originated from an accidental lab leak, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. Unsurprisi­ngly, Republican­s have latched onto the news as confirmati­on of their beliefs and are clamoring to use it against perceived enemies, including China and scientists such as Anthony S. Fauci.

But the department’s conclusion, which is at odds with other intelligen­ce assessment­s that support animal-to-human spillover, answers the wrong question. At this point, a far more useful analysis would focus on what should be done to prevent future pandemics in the case that either hypothesis is true.

Of course, I agree that identifyin­g the cause of any new pathogen — especially one that has caused as much death and destructio­n as covid — is of utmost importance. But more than three years into the pandemic, there is no consensus from the scientific or intelligen­ce communitie­s on the coronaviru­s’s origin.

A 2022 report from the World Health Organizati­on said that available data pointed to animal spillover, even though the host animal that infected humans nor the location where this occurred has yet to be identified. Given that there was even less evidence of a lab leak, the chair of the WHO expert team concluded that “at this point, the strongest evidence is still around zoonotic transmissi­on.”

Some U.S. intelligen­ce analysts disagreed in an assessment released in October 2021. They favored the lab-leak theory based on speculatio­n that lab workers could have unwittingl­y exposed themselves to the virus in the course of research with “inadequate biosafety conditions.” But the analysts also admitted that they had “no indication­s that [the lab’s] research involved SARS- COV-2 or a close progenitor virus.”

Federal agencies remain divided: Two agencies, including the Energy Department, side with the lab leak hypothesis; four others and the National Intelligen­ce Council prefer animal spillover, though also with “low confidence.” (Two others have not taken a position.)

The main reason getting to the truth has been so difficult is that the Chinese government has actively obstructed internatio­nal investigat­ions, refusing to disclose key data and going so far as to block a WHO team from entering China. This behavior is reprehensi­ble, but because it’s unlikely to change, I believe we need to shift our primary question from “what caused the coronaviru­s?” to “if either hypothesis can be true, then what?”

The lab-leak theory has credence because we know laboratory accidents with dangerous pathogens can cause catastroph­ic outcomes. In 1978, a 40-year-old medical school employee in Britain died of smallpox that’s thought to have originated from a laboratory there. Numerous other accidents involving viruses from dengue to anthrax to SARS have been reported, including in the United States. Regardless of whether this coronaviru­s resulted from a research mishap, there’s clearly a need for additional biosafety regulation­s and oversight.

There are also fierce debates about “gain of function” research, in which pathogens are modified to become more transmissi­ble or more virulent. Scientists themselves do not agree on whether the humanitari­an benefit is worth the potential risk.

I can see valid points on both sides. One way to thread the needle is to increase review of gain-of-function studies. The Department of Health and Human Services must review any federal government-funded study “reasonably anticipate­d” to generate a pathogen that might cause a pandemic. But since the mandate was establishe­d in 2017, only three projects were reviewed and all were approved. An improved process should capture more studies, including those done in the private sector and overseas. This should occur even if gain-of-function research didn’t cause covid.

In the meantime, the world must be on guard for more zoonotic diseases. It’s estimated that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. The Marburg virus, now causing an outbreak in Equatorial Guinea, is believed to be spread by fruit bats to monkeys and humans. Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, has been transmitte­d to humans from nonhuman primates and pet prairie dogs. And avian influenza, which has spread like wildfire in wild and domestic birds in recent months, has caused 458 human deaths over the past 20 years.

Regardless of whether the coronaviru­s also jumped over from an animal host, much more needs to be done to address the root causes of interspeci­es pathogen transfer. Animals have come closer to human habitats because of deforestat­ion, wildlife “wet markets,” farming practices and climate change. Reducing future zoonotic transmissi­on requires an understand­ing that the health of humans and that of animals and their shared environmen­t are inextricab­ly linked.

It’s possible — and even likely — that we might never have the definitive answer of what caused covid-19. Doubling down on a hypothesis might score political points, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to keep humans safe. So instead, let’s adopt an “all of the above” strategy: ensure laboratory biosafety, prevent further zoonotic spread and improve global cooperatio­n.

The lab-leak theory has credence because we know laboratory accidents with dangerous pathogens can cause catastroph­ic outcomes.

 ?? Thomas Peter/reuters ?? Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in February 2021.
Thomas Peter/reuters Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in February 2021.

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