We may never know for certain how a disease that brought the world to a standstill and has killed almost 7 million people emerged. While many experts believe that Covid-19 arose through human contact with infected animals, most likely via a wet market in Wuhan, China, a significant number believe it probably escaped from the city’s Institute of Virology. Others retain an open mind. But politics has turbocharged a scientific question. Donald Trump hyped the lab leak theory without evidence; yet some scientists fear that, in the haste to challenge xenophobic buck-passing that was fuelling anti-Asian hate crime, others may have been too quick to dismiss entirely a genuine possibility.
The simmering, rancorous debate began heating up again late last month when it emerged that the US Department of Energy had concluded, though with “low confidence”, that a lab escape was probably to blame. The FBI agrees, while four other US agencies blame natural spillover and two – including the CIA – remain undecided. Then, a new analysis of gene sequences taken from swabs from the market showed that some Covid-positive samples were rich in DNA from raccoon dogs, bolstering the case that it began through infected animals sold at the site. As the row gathers pace, Joe Biden has ordered the release of intelligence on the pandemic’s origins.
The matter has been further complicated by a morass of wild rumour and conspiracy theories, suggesting without evidence that the emergence or dissemination of the virus might have been deliberate. As one expert noted: “The hypothesis of a lab-associated origin became synonymous with deliberate efforts to engineer viruses and malevolent intent, and this has not been helpful.”
The World Health Organization concluded from its initial investigation that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” to have caused the pandemic, but the second phase of its inquiries has stalled as Beijing has failed to share more data. China has a history of cover-ups, including over the deadly Sars outbreak; officials in Wuhan attempted to hide early Covid cases, arresting people who posted about the mysterious new disease; the top leadership in Beijing reportedly waited six days to warn the public after determining that a pandemic was likely; and officials have promoted disinformation implying that the virus might have come from a US lab.
But US hawkishness, particularly among Republicans and rightwing media, has played a key role too, and so has a desire to find a scapegoat for the 1.1 million lives that Covid has claimed in the US. However the outbreak began, China bears responsibility for allowing the virus to spread through its initial mishandling. But other governments – particularly the Trump administration – failed to act to protect their populations long after the danger was clear.
We do not need to know Covid’s origins to defend ourselves against future pandemics. It is clear that closer contact with wild creatures increases the risks of viruses jumping from animals to humans. We also know that dangerous diseases have escaped from labs before, and that biosecurity is too often poor. Whichever risk led to the pandemic, both must be addressed urgently. Radically expanding disease surveillance, preserving natural habitats, rethinking industrialised farming, and improving vigilance at and monitoring of laboratories, are all required. This, rather than the blame game, is what politicians should prioritise.
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