Scientists who say SARS-CoV-2 lab leak hypothesis shouldn’t be ruled out
Relman agrees that in the absence of conclusive evidence, the message about origins should be “we don’t know.” After the Lancet statement, then a subsequent paper on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 written by scientists who concluded that “we don’t think any kind of laboratory scenario is plausible”, he felt increasingly discouraged by those who he said were ‘were gripped by a fallout scenario, despite “an astonishing lack of data.” Relman says he felt he had to push back. So he wrote a widely circulated article opinion piece in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claiming that a laboratory origin was among several potential scenarios; that conflicts of interest between those on all sides of the issue must be exposed and addressed; and that discovering the true origins of SARS-CoV-2 was essential to prevent another pandemic. Efforts to investigate the origins, he wrote, “have become mired in politics, poorly substantiated assumptions and claims, and incomplete information.”
One of the first calls to the media after the op-ed was published came from Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Relman says. He declined the interview.
When asked why he thought Daszak and others objected so strongly to the possibility of a lab leak, Relman said they might have wanted to deflect perceptions of their work as highlighting danger to humanity. With so-called “gain-of-function” experiments, for example, scientists genetically manipulate viruses to probe their evolution – sometimes in a way that stimulates virulence or transmissibility. This type of research can reveal targets for drugs and vaccines against viral diseases, including Covid-19, and has been used at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in studies showing that certain bat coronaviruses do not were only a few mutations away from being able to bind to human ACE2. . A Paper 2015 in Nature Medicine notes that “the potential for preparing and mitigating future epidemics must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens.”
Relman suggests that among those who try to suppress the hypothesis of liberation from the lab, there might have been “far too much protection of oneself and one’s peers before allowing a really important matter to be heard.” And scientists who collaborate with researchers in China “might be worried about their working relationship if they say anything other than” this threat is from nature. “
Other scientists say opposition to the laboratory leak hypothesis was based more on general disbelief that SARS-CoV-2 could have been deliberately engineered. “That’s what got politicized,” Perlman says. As to whether the virus was able to escape after evolving naturally, he says it’s “more difficult to rule out or rule out.”
In an email last week, Relman added that the matter may never be fully resolved. “From a natural fallout perspective, it would require confirmed contact between a proven naturally infected host species (eg bat) and a human or humans who can be shown with reliable and confirmed information on time. and the place as having been infected as a result. of the encounter, before any other known human case, “says Relman,” and it was then shown that the infection had been passed on to others. ” Regarding the laboratory leak scenario, it would require “confirmed evidence of possession of the virus before the first cases, and a probable mechanism of leakage in humans” – all of which become less likely over time. “Finding the possible immediate relatives of SARS-CoV-2 would help understand the recent genomic / evolutionary history of the virus,” he adds, “but not necessarily how and where this story happened.”
As it stands, pandemic preparedness faces two simultaneous fronts. On the one hand, the world has seen many pandemic and epidemic outbreaks over the past 20 years, including SARS, chikungunya, H1N1, Middle East respiratory virus, several Ebola outbreaks, three norovirus outbreaks. , Zika and now SARS-CoV-2. . Speaking of coronavirus, says Ralph Baric, epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “it’s hard to imagine there aren’t variants” in bats with death rates approaching the 30% of MERS who also have “transmissibility which is much more efficient. And that’s terrifying. Baric insists that genetic research with viruses is essential to stay ahead of the threat.”
Yet, according to Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, the dangers of laboratory release are also increasing. The risk increases in proportion to the number of laboratories handling biological weapons and potential pandemic pathogens (over 1,500 worldwide in 2010), he says, many of them, such as the Wuhan laboratory, located in nearby urban areas. international airports. “The most dramatic expansion has occurred in China over the past four years – in the form of an arms race-like reaction to the expansion of biodefense in the United States, Europe and Japan.” , Ebright wrote in an email to Undark. “China has opened two new BSL-4 facilities, in Wuhan and Harbin, in the past four years,” he added, “and announced plans to create a network of hundreds of new BSL-laboratories. 3 and BSL-4. “
Meanwhile, feuds over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 continue, with some inflamed. In a recent Twitter exchange, Chan was compared to a QAnon supporter and insurgent. A few months earlier, she had tweeted about research integrity issues and said if the actions of scientists and newspaper editors were to cover up the origins of the virus, these people would be complicit in the deaths of millions of people. (Chan has since deleted this tweet, which she regrets posting.)
“Moods are high,” Nielsen says, making it difficult for skilled scientists to have a serious discussion.
In Australia, Petrovksy says he’s trying to stay on top of the fray. He says he has been warned to avoid speaking publicly about his modeling findings. “A lot of people have advised us” even though it’s good science, don’t talk about it. This will have a negative impact on the development of your vaccine. You will be attacked; they will try to discredit you. “” But in the end, that is not what happened, said Petrovsky. Last year, amid the origins debate, his team became the first in the southern hemisphere to incorporate a Covid-19 vaccine into human clinical trials.
“If we’re at the point where all science is politicized and no one cares about the truth and is only politically correct,” he says, “we might as well give up and stop and stop doing science. “
Charles Schmidt is the recipient of the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award. His work has been published in Science, Nature Biotechnology, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, and The Washington Post, among other publications.