Scientists to examine possibility Covid leaked from lab as part of investigation into virus origins

Paul Nuki
·5 min read
Bats in night sky - Getty Images 
Bats in night sky - Getty Images

An international team of scientists will examine the possibility Sars-Cov-2 leaked from a laboratory as part of a comprehensive investigation into the origins of the virus.

The team is being set up as part of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a body established in July to “offer practical solutions” to the pandemic and make recommendations on how the next one can be avoided or better defended against.

The team looking at the origins of the virus will be led by Dr Peter Daszak, a British zoologist and leading authority on zoonotic spillover events.

Dr Daszak said yesterday he and his team would “systematically examine every theory” about the origin of the virus, carefully marshalling the scientific evidence for each. 

He accepted conspiracy theorists would not welcome his appointment but said, as a scientist, he would “not be bound by preconceived ideas” and would investigate all avenues forensically and “with an open mind”.

He warned, however, it was not possible to “prove a negative” and said it was unlikely it would ever be possible to say with “absolute certainty” how the virus emerged. 

“But what we can do is look at every possible theory on the origins of COVID-19 and say, ‘what is the evidence for that?’ And then we put all of those theories together and say, ‘where is the preponderance of evidence?’

“Is it for the virus coming from nature and spilling over into people and emerging that way? Or is it for some form of human involvement that involves a lab or biotechnology? Let's see where the evidence lies”.

Since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China in late December, a deluge of conspiracy theories have circulated about its origins. 

The Lancet Commission notes in its mission statement that “the evidence to date supports the view that Sars-Cov-2 is a naturally occurring virus rather than the result of laboratory creation and release”.

But it adds that investigators should examine the ‘possibility of laboratory involvement” in “a scientific and objective way that is unhindered by geopolitical agendas and misinformation”.

It is hoped a full investigation will, if nothing else, will rule out “baseless and uninformed allegations and conspiracy theories that are unbacked by evidence”. 

Inside the high security laboratory in Wuhan, China - the subject of many conspiracy theories  - AFP
Inside the high security laboratory in Wuhan, China - the subject of many conspiracy theories - AFP

The wider Lancet Covid-19 Commission is being chaired by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, an eminent American economist and adviser to the UN.

He will oversee the investigation, not just into the origins of virus, but the world’s reaction to it in order to make recommendations for strengthening pandemic preparedness globally. 

“What we have learned, I think, about the public health response [to date] is that even though this is a devilish virus it is controllable”, he told the Telegraph. 

“Around two billion people live in countries that have substantially suppressed the virus. They've been able to do that, primarily because of public health means, and especially these non-pharmaceutical interventions [social distancing]”.

“But if we look at the UK, the US, and western Europe, we failed to put such policies in place basically until now. In the US we still don't have an effective control system.

“We have a lot of emphasis on hospitals, but far far less on public health”. 

Prof Sachs said he hoped and expected the Lancet Commission would be conducted on an objective basis and would be free of political bias.

“There has been a lot of rumour-mongering and statements that are way out of line, that are part of a political agenda by some people, senators in the US and others that have really gone far beyond what we know,” he said.

“The origins of the virus must be understood, both to help end the current pandemic and to prevent the next one.”

Dr Daszak, like most zoologists, virologists and geneticists, says the strongest evidence available to date points to Sars-Cov-2 emerging naturally.

It is likely the virus has a natural reservoir in bats in which closely related coronaviruses viruses have been found. 

From there it may have jumped directly to humans via a so-called spillover event, or perhaps indirectly via farmed mustelids such as ferrets, mink, martens, civets and weasels.

Mink are known to catch and transmit Sars-Cov-2
Mink are known to catch and transmit Sars-Cov-2

A recent study of mink farms in Holland demonstrated that closely packed mustelids catch and spread the Sars-Cov-2 efficiently. The researchers were also able to track the virus jumping back and forth between farmer workers and their animals, mutating as it moved.

The intensive farming of mustelids and other small animals is common in China where the animals are used for their fur and meat, and in traditional medicine. 

Dr Daszak says the key to understanding zoonotic spillover is to think of it, not as a rare occurrence but as something happening all the time - a numbers game. 

Most animal viruses quickly die out if they pass from human to human at all, but given the right virus and the right set of environmental circumstances, they can explode. 

“It is not that every 10 years or so a person gets infected by a bat virus and it sparks a pandemic. What's really happening is, every day people are getting infected,” he said.

“The chances of it spreading depends on things like is the virus replicating quickly? Does it cause illness? Does the infected person have a high level of contact with other people? Do they travel to busy cities or markets?”

As the world has become more developed, mobile and connected the risk of spillover events escalating has risen, causing scientists to speculate that we may be facing a “pandemic century” in which major outbreaks become much more common.   “We may be much more vulnerable to these pandemics than we think,” said Dr Daszak. “We may be creating a perfect storm. And if that's true, we need to know it. We need to get some data around it.

“It isn't a blame game or about politics. It’s much more important. This is about how do we as a species deal with what is potentially an existential threat to our existence”. 

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