WASHINGTON — With tensions deepening between the United States and China, the question of how and where the coronavirus originated remains a point of great contention, especially as the “lab leak” hypothesis gains traction.
There is consensus that the pandemic originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, maybe already in september 2019. But did it start in a wildlife market, jumping from a bat or other animal host to humans? Or did the coronavirus emanate from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a result of an accident?
More than three years after the start of the pandemic, these fundamental questions remain unanswered. If anything, the heated and partisan debates over masks and vaccines have been overshadowed by the question of how the virus first entered the human population.
‘The spell is broken’
Perhaps no one did more to popularize the notion of a laboratory leak than comedian jon stewartwho brought up the case in a viral appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show in 2021.
“Science has helped in many ways to alleviate the suffering of this pandemic, which was probably caused by science,” Stewart said in a lengthy riff on how he could not accept as mere coincidence that the coronavirus originated in a city that also it was his home. to a laboratory dedicated to the study of coronaviruses.
“The reaction was quick, immediate and quite loud,” stewart mused last month. Since then, however, more and more experts have come to his point of view.
Recently, the so-called Department of Energy Z division he told the Biden administration that he was increasingly certain that the virus originated in a laboratory. Other intelligence agencies continue to favor zoonoses: the common process of transferring a virus from an animal population to humans, but because much of the evidence on which those assessments were made remains classified, it has been difficult to analyze on what grounds the agencies disagree.
Initially, many scientists and public health experts argued that supporting anything other than the zoonotic hypothesis would fuel conspiracy theories and growing anti-Asian sentiment.
But conclusive proof of an animal-to-human jump never materialized, while circumstantial evidence of a lab leak has piled up.
“We have more and more popular awareness about the validity of the laboratory origin theory, and this is leading more scientists to speak up and come out of nowhere,” he says. Alex Washburnea freelance mathematical epidemiologist and pathogen contagion researcher who has worked at Duke and Princeton Universities.
Gone are the days when advocates of lab leaks were lumped in with anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. “The spell is broken,” Washburne told Yahoo News.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill I want classified intelligence on the issue, but it’s unclear if the Biden administration will comply.
‘His Hand in the Cookie Jar’
When Republicans took over the House after the midterm elections last November, the new house leaders vowed to question top public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, until recently director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top pandemic adviser to Presidents Biden and Donald Trump, and Dr. Francis Collins, who retired in 2021 from leadership of the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci has been at the center of conspiracy theories (some of which have resulted in threats against him and his family) and legitimate questions about whether federal regulators sufficiently oversaw grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
There, the researchers conducted gain-of-function studies, which make a virus more transmissible or more harmful to anticipate how it might behave in a human population. There is some persuasive but circumstantial genetic evidence to suggest that such research could have led to the inadvertent release of the pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2.
That evidence, witnesses said Wednesday at the first hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, consists of a sequence of four amino acids that form what is known as a furin cleavage site, a unique signature that some researchers believe it is irrefutable evidence of human meddling. (Others say that furin cleavage sites are not genetically modified.)
Fauci’s name was frequently invoked during the hearing. Earlier this week, Republican members of the committee released the content of email exchanges describing how Fauci and Collins supposedly discounted the laboratory leak hypothesis in the early stages of the pandemic. They did so, the Republicans argued, without any evidence in favor of the zoonotic model.
“Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who heads the House Oversight Committee, said at Wednesday’s hearing, suggesting they were directly responsible for the work done in Wuhan.
“They got caught overloading viruses in an unsecured Chinese lab,” he said. In fact, there is no evidence that Fauci or Collins were directly involved in any investigation conducted in Wuhan. It’s more likely that NIH regulators failed to push their Chinese colleagues hard enough about the type of research they were conducting, as a government report published earlier this year suggested.
Witnesses point to laboratory leak
Fauci has yet to take a test before the GOP coronavirus panel, but he is a veteran of Capitol Hill hearings and has said he would not hesitate to defend his record. At a hearing in 2021, he argued in favor of cooperating with Chinese researchers, including on gain-of-function experiments.
“You have to go where the action is,” he said at the time.
The most important witness on Wednesday was Dr. Robert Redfield, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sidelined by then-President Donald Trump and never fully trusted by Democrats, was an early proponent of the lab leak narrative.
He used his testimony as a kind of vindication, while doing little to hide his abiding dislike for Fauci.
“Based on my initial analysis of the data, I came to believe and continue to believe today that it indicates that COVID-19 was more likely the result of an accidental laboratory release than the result of a natural spill event.” redfield said.
A similar assessment was offered by the witness jamie metzlwho noted on more than one occasion that he was a pro-science Democrat, having served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
“There is no ‘smoking gun’ that proves a hypothesis of laboratory origin, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a weapon that is, at the very least, hot to the touch,” Metzl said.
The questions that China will not answer
Between fears of a Taiwan invasion and the recent downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon that had floated for days over the mainland United States, Sino-US relations appear to be at a low ebb.
And as evidence of a lab leak mounts, pressure is mounting on China to open up to outside investigations into the matter. So far, researchers have not found a convincing animal candidate for the zoonotic hypothesis. Except for a single visit from the WHO, they have not allowed Western researchers unrestricted access to the Wuhan virology lab.
“China hasn’t fully cooperated, and that’s a key critical gap that would help us understand exactly what happened,” Avril Haines, the nation’s intelligence director, said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.
World Health Organization officials have also become exasperated, facing both criticism of Chinese influence in the agency and intransigence from Beijing, which has gone so far as to say the virus may have originated from a American biological weapons facility.
Understanding how the pandemic started was “critical,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the agency’s coronavirus response, said at a briefing on Wednesday. Although he called for more transparency from China, Van Kerkhove also echoed Capitol Hill demands to review classified evidence now only available to US intelligence agencies.
“This is not a game,” he said.
Unlike the investigation into the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol, the investigation into how the pandemic began has so far been a bipartisan affair. But while the Republicans wanted to focus strictly on where the coronavirus originated, the Democrats were more interested in how the next pandemic could be stopped.
They also argued that focusing on China was a way to absolve Trump of a careless and erratic response that led to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths during the start of the crisis.
“Whatever the origin of COVID-19, be it bats or bureaucrats,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said“no finding will exonerate or rehabilitate Donald Trump for his lethal recklessness in mishandling the crisis.”