Covid-19 origin: Top scientists seek probe into Wuhan lab leak theory, slam WHO and China over joint study

Wuhan Institute of Virology refused to accept the letter, saying such claims were misplaced and would hurt the capability to fight pandemics


                            Covid-19 origin: Top scientists seek probe into Wuhan lab leak theory, slam WHO and China over joint study
Top medical experts like David Relman (L) (New America/Wikipmedia Commons) have sought more investigation into the Wuhan lab-leak theory as the origin of the coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images)

A theory floated around the world in the wake of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in late 2019 that the virus had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. While it has been debated for more than a year, researchers at a number of premier universities have written a letter saying the theory remains a viable one and sought further studies to investigate where the virus originated. The pandemic has claimed 3.3 million lives all over the world and countries like the US (32.8 million cases), India (23.7 million) and Brazil (15.4 million) have been the worst hit. The US also has seen the highest death toll of 580,000 plus. David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, and Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the University of Washington, are behind the letter which got published in the journal ‘Science’. Eighteen prominent biologists from universities like Harvard and Cambridge signed the document. 

The letter begins by stating: “On 30 December 2019, the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases notified the world about pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China (1). Since then, scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), its transmission, pathogenesis, and mitigation by vaccines, therapeutics, and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Yet more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how Covid-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”

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The claim that the virus escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology was laughed off by many as a conspiracy theory but the researchers suggested that the hypotheses could not yet be ruled out. Relman told The Times, UK, that “many who signed this letter feel the same way” that researchers “simply just don’t have enough information”. “Anyone who asserts a strong opinion one way or another can't really be basing it on a whole lot of good data,” Relman said.

He also cautioned against offering speculation of which there is little basis and especially when the researchers are trying to maintain that their credibility has purveyors of good science. In the letter, the experts spoke about the World Health Organization (WHO) and China for their recent joint study to probe the origins of the pandemic, alleging the theory of it originating from the lab was “not given balanced consideration” to the theory that it is the result of a natural spillover. 

WHO Director Tedros Adhanom with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in January 2020 (Getty Images)

“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general (5), the United States and 13 other countries (6), and the European Union (7) that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the letter said, adding that the public health agencies and research laboratories need to reveal their records to the public.
 
The WHO-China report concluded that a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host is “likely to very likely” while a laboratory incident was “extremely unlikely”. “The information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis,” the letter read. It claimed that the possibility of a laboratory leak was not given enough consideration as only four of the report’s 313 pages and the annexes addressed the issue. 

“A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest,” it said. 

Wuhan virology institute chief scientist rejects letter

Shi Zhengli, the chief scientist for emerging disease at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, slammed the letter saying it was not acceptable. Speaking to the MIT Technology Review over email, she asked: “Who can provide an evidence that does not exist?” She counter-alleged that such suspicions as presented in the letter were misplaced and would damage the world’s capacity to respond to pandemics. She said the leak hypothesis is “just based on the expertise of a lab which has long been working on bat coronaviruses”.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV website)

In March, another open letter signed by 26 policy analysts and scientsts was published seeking an international forensic investigation into the origins of Covid-19. It said the WHO team did not have the mandate, independence or necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted probe and had to depend on the data that China had shared with them. However, that group featured mostly outsiders and the letter was dismissed by renowned virologists who felt the signatories lacked appropriate expertise. 

'Talks on lab leak hypothesis highly politicized in US'

Relman told the MIT Technology Review saying talks around the lab leak hypothesis have become highly political in the US and the Republican lawmakers and the conservative media have embraced it most loudly. He also said the effects of the polarization have been found on the scientists, some of whom have been hesitant to speak out their concerns. He also expressed hope that the letter could give the Democrats and the White House a useful cover to join the questioning of the pandemic’s origin. 

In February 2020, The Lancet published a letter from a group of 27 prominent public health scientists pushing back on claims that the virus had originated from a lab in Wuhan. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” that letter said. 

Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Robert Redfield (Getty Images)

In the US, however, experts have disagreed over the matter. While former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director chief Dr Robert Redfield said that he believed Covid-19 originated from the Wuhan lab, Dr Anthony Fauci, who has been in the forefront to lead the fight against the pandemic both in the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, shot it down. 

The letter published in 'Science' concluded by saying that it was doctors, scientists, journalists and citizens from China who had shared with the world key information about the outbreak, even at the expense of personal losses. "We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue," it said, referring to the rising anti-Asian hatred in some countries.