Why Is Everyone Suddenly Talking About COVID-19 Escaping From a Lab?

Why Is Everyone Suddenly Talking About COVID-19 Escaping From a Lab?


aerial view of lab buildings

The Wuhan Institute of Virology
Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL (Getty Images)

There’s been a pretty broad consensus among scientists who study viruses that the one that causes COVID-19 arose naturally and passed from animals to humans sometime in late 2019, in or near Wuhan, China. But an alternate hypothesis—that it escaped from a lab in that city—has been tossed around like a political football since the start of the pandemic, and never treated with more credulity than in recent days.

Is there new evidence that a lab leak may have happened? Not really; nothing has changed scientifically that would change experts’ minds. But scientists and governments have still not been able to pin down the exact source of the coronavirus, despite almost a year and a half of investigations. So it is technically still an open question.

What put this Wuhan lab leak theory back in the news?

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported three researchers at the Wuhan lab had been hospitalized in November of 2019 (the virus was officially discovered in December). Their symptoms were consistent with those of COVID-19, but they were also consistent with “seasonal illness”—in other words, they could have just had colds or the flu.

This new information is hardly a smoking gun, but it came out just as the World Health Organization was preparing the next phase of its investigation into the virus’s origins.

President Biden then announced that he has asked the intelligence community for a report in 90 days on what is known about the possible origins of the coronavirus. It’s not likely that they will learn anything in the next 90 days that wasn’t learned in the past year and a half, but the issue has always been political and is playing out that way. The Democrats and the GOP are arguing over it; the U.S. and China are threatening to investigate each other.

Could the virus have been created in a lab and deployed as a bioweapon?

This scenario is extremely unlikely, according to experts. Genetic analyses have shown that it is very similar to another coronavirus that has existed in the wild, in bats, in another area of China. It doesn’t bear any hallmarks of alteration in a lab; you can read more from a genetic scientist on that theory here.

There’s also a plausibility issue here: The whole idea of a bioweapon—of any weapon—is that you need to be able to use it against your enemy without it taking you out at the same time. Guns shoot at a distance; bombs are strategically placed or dropped. A highly contagious virus would make a bad weapon, since there are no boundaries to contain it to just the intended victims. And the coronavirus has indeed spread globally.

Okay, if the virus wasn’t created in a lab, could it have been discovered naturally and then escaped?

This is a lot more plausible than the idea that the virus was created or deliberately released, but very few experts think it is likely. Worth looking into though, since it’s not completely impossible.

Part of the work at the Wuhan lab was to investigate a variety of coronaviruses, including many from bats, to determine what makes some of them so dangerous. (Remember, SARS was another coronavirus with a possible bat origin, and it was responsible for a scary but short-lived pandemic that started in Asia in 2003.)

For some background on SARS, other coronaviruses, and what’s currently known about the possible natural origin of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2, as it’s officially known), this rundown from Science News explains it well. Briefly, it’s really hard to track down the source of a virus, because there are so many different animal viruses out there, and looking for the specific one that is most closely related to COVID-19 is a needle-in-a-haystack problem. The origins of the SARS virus weren’t well understood until 2017, and the origins of COVID-19 may take years to figure out as well.

  



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