Double Check: Why is the COVID-19 lab leak theory still relevant?

By: priyanka ishwari&
April 21 2023

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Double Check: Why is the COVID-19 lab leak theory still relevant?

In early March 2023, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo celebrated his "vindication" of the COVID-19 lab leak theory, thanks to a classified report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), cited in the Wall Street Journal. The report concluded that "the COVID pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak."

Right-leaning news outlets and commentators such as Fox News quickly used the report to validate narratives they had pushed throughout the pandemic. They wasted no time questioning the credibility of the fact-checking community, finding themselves in the company of conspiracy theorists whose unsubstantiated claims on COVID-19 had received a fresh breath of life

However, many COVID-19 lab leak theory proponents downplayed or simply ignored some key points from the DOE report, namely that the judgment was made with "low confidence," and that there is no consensus over the origins among the U.S. intelligence community.

The origins of COVID-19 have been the subject of regular and divisive debate, with two main explanations dominating the discourse. One suggests a natural, zoonotic origin, in which the virus emerged in an animal – thought initially to be a bat, but potentially a raccoon dog at a wet market in Wuhan, China – and then jumped species. The other, that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan and was then leaked accidentally or intentionally. Until the DOE report, natural theory was generally favored, with the lab leak theory treated as a fringe belief at best, and a conspiracy theory at worst. 

As Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Logically Facts, "a natural origin seemed (and still is) possible because that is what happened with prior coronavirus outbreaks such as MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the Chinese wet market (where myriad animals were housed, butchered, and sold) was a real focal point in the outbreak. Both hypotheses are still active and have various levels of evidence supporting them." Adalja believes there is a lack of scientific evidence for the lab leak theory, stating, "no peer-reviewed literature points to a lab leak — this is why it remains a hypothesis." 

Origins of the lab leak theory and its quick dismissal

The lab leak theory gained popularity through an endorsement by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who alleged during the early stages of the pandemic that China had "sent over the virus" and was therefore responsible, just as it was responsible for "stealing U.S. jobs." He famously advocated for research into injecting disinfectants and UV light to kill the virus.

Trump and his allies also added a racial element to the debate, popularizing terms such as the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese plague,” and “Kung Flu,” furthering anti-Asian sentiment on social media. Human Rights Watch noted a substantial uptick in instances of racist violence. Tensions between the U.S. and China due to competitive trade wars lent the COVID-19 origin debate a political, rather than scientific, overtone. 

As anti-China sentiment increased in the following months, many American leaders made unfounded claims that COVID-19 was a bioweapon, reducing chances of a rational debate over the pandemic’s origins. Aided by conspiracy theories that the pandemic was a planned event or a way of controlling the population, the lab leak theory gained momentum.

Lab leaks more generally are not an uncommon phenomenon, as reported by the Economist, though no incident has caused a pandemic as of yet. "Laboratory accidents do happen, but the divisiveness of the debate stemmed from this issue getting sucked up into the tribalism of identity politics," Dr. Adalja said.

However, the COVID-19 lab leak theory was still plagued by insufficient scientific evidence. Several prominent scientists denounced the claims in an open letter in The Lancet, calling them "rumors" and "misinformation." Several studies in reputed scientific and medical journals reiterated the scientific evidence favoring a zoonotic origin. While these reports admitted the evidence was inconclusive, it strongly suggested that the virus jumped species, with the first known cluster of cases arising at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan in December 2019. A joint study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and China in early 2021 also concluded that the creation of the virus in a laboratory was "extremely unlikely." 

Despite this, a small team of scientists demanded an open debate and deeper probe into the lab leak theory and the WHO's U-turn from its initial assessment, where they asked for further studies on the origins within days of first rejecting the possibility of a lab leak.

In January 2020, Dr. Kristen Anderson, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, suggested in a reported email that some virus features appeared to be engineered, and that he and his colleagues would look into the virus' genome. By March 2020, they published a paper in the Nature Medicine journal, concluding a lab leak to be unlikely. 

Lab leak theory proponents dismiss the natural origin theory for its inability to conclusively point at an intermediary mammal or animals that were responsible for the spillover of SARS-CoV to humans. But, it can take years for scientists to determine the exact source of a virus. For example, Slate reported it took "29 years to definitively identify the source of Ebola, 26 years for HIV/AIDS, and 15 years for SARS." 

Lack of consensus and focus on non-scientific evidence

Many experts have pointed out that the DOE report, which also shares its conclusion with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) findings, is an intelligence assessment, not a scientific conclusion. Both agencies are yet to share their reports with the public. The Scientific American noted that "low confidence" means "that the information's credibility and/or plausibility is uncertain, that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytical inferences, or that reliability of the sources is questionable." 

Additionally, in October 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence highlighted four unnamed U.S. agencies in an unclassified report and along with the National Intelligence Council concluded, albeit with low confidence, that the pandemic resulted from a natural transmission. Two agencies, including the CIA, were undecided, while the FBI and DOE supported the lab leak theory with low confidence. No agency has labeled the incident an act of bio-terrorism or the result of deliberate actions. 

China's unwillingness to cooperate 

The narratives around the mystery behind COVID-19 origins will likely continue as long as research is still underway, compounded by China's apparent resistance to sharing information, and conflicting reports by U.S. intelligence agencies. Dr. Adalja believes that China’s unwillingness to share data has hampered efforts, stating that "Because of China's lack of transparency since day one of the pandemic, there has been a limited ability to understand the virus origins. We have been (and remain) in the dark about the early days of this virus's first jump into humans. In the U.S., the political climate also did limit the ability to discuss the laboratory leak hypothesis because it was reflexively labeled as some far-fetched conspiracy theory." 

The WHO has also raised concerns over the latest information, where data was briefly uploaded by China to the genome database linking the virus to raccoon dogs. "The big issue right now is that this data exists and is not readily available to the international community. That data needs to be made accessible to individuals who can access it, analyze it, and discuss it with each other," WHO officials stated on March 17, 2023.

The WHO says 'all hypotheses on the table' 

As agencies, health bodies, and scientists strive to definitively identify the origins of COVID-19, to prevent future pandemics, the WHO continues to seek help from China. As a WHO spokesperson told Logically Facts, "the WHO and SAGO will keep examining all available scientific evidence that would help us advance the knowledge on the origin of SARS-CoV-2, and we call on China and the scientific community to undertake necessary studies in that direction. Until we have more evidence, all hypotheses are still on the table." 

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