Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic (green) cell heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (purple), isolated from a patient sample. Caption and photo: niaid / Flickr, CC BY 2.0
No one knows for sure where SARS-CoV-2 came from. I don’t know, nobody knows. But there are two ideas. The first is that the virus was harbored by an unknown animal, possibly bats, where it mutated and acquired the ability to infect humans. Many pandemic viruses – Ebola, 1918 influenza – have appeared this way. The other is that the virus was deliberately created in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center close to where the initial outbreaks were first detected in China.
Although there is no direct evidence for either idea, the natural origins hypothesis takes scientific precedence. The coronavirus family of viruses, which includes SARS-CoV-2, has spread to humans (SARS and MERS) and caused pandemics. Natural origin also takes into account natural phenomena that occur all the time in wild viruses – they reproduce quickly, mutate frequently acquire parts DNA like a boat collecting barnacles and change behaviour, especially when moving from one host to another. These processes occur in all viruses.
But the continuing uncertainty over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has made other explanations, as complex as they are, attractive. Now, the laboratory leak hypothesis has taken on the rhythm and melody of conspiracy theory.
The huge “scoop” of the Wall Street newspaper Earlier this month, three staff from the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill at the end of 2019, during cold and flu season. The article quotes a Trump official who said it sounds fishy, and that’s it. There is no the same indirect scientific proof that the virus was created in a laboratory. Nonetheless, there seems to be a wish, a certain desire that China would be involved in a cover-up.
In 2002, SARS spread from horseshoe bats to humans. MERS, caused by another coronavirus, spread to camels in 2012. Related coronavirus in the SARS-CoV-2 subfamily have been identified in wild bats and pangolins. And the characteristics of the virus that seem to scream at the hand of a synthetic biologist are best explained by the type of random driftwood mutations that viruses constantly detect.
SARS-CoV-2 uses its spike protein to bind tightly to ACE2, a protein on the surface of cells in humans and other animals. But research has shown that this bond is actually not biochemical ideal, which makes the idea that it was created synthetically less likely; this ability to bind to ACE2 could easily have manifested itself through common mutation pathways. The ballyhooed “furin cleavage site” – a site where the viral spike protein is cut, facilitating infection in a cell – was created by an out-of-sequence insertion of a small piece of DNA resulting in another non-ideal biochemical reaction.
New viruses appear all the time. Constantly. The number of viral particles on the planet is more than the number of stars in the universe; the speed at which viruses reproduce, their ability to mutate rapidly and adapt to new environments and new hosts, mean that there are functionally an infinite number of viruses on the planet.
So figuring out where this particular virus came from will be a challenge. It can take years, decades, or more to find the source of a virus. Ebola, for example, was identified in 1976, has caused multiple outbreaks and we still don’t really know which animal it spread from. To confirm beyond a reasonable doubt the origins of the virus, it would be necessary to sample wild animals and sequence the viruses they carry to find a close genetic relative, an astronomical task, haystacks in haystacks. In the absence of a smoking gun, there is still good research that points in one direction. Take the phylogenetic analysis by preprinting this week which, once again, suggests bats as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, with pangolins or civets as possible intermediate steps.
If the question is “are the two hypotheses possible?” The answer is yes. Both are possible. If the question is “are they equally likely?” the answer is absolutely no. One hypothesis has required colossal cover-up and the silent, steadfast and watertight compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians and officials for over a year. The other only requires that biology behave as it always has, for a family of viruses that have already done it before starting over. The zoonotic fallout hypothesis is simple and explains everything. It is a scientific mistake to claim that one idea is just as meritorious as the other. The laboratory leak hypothesis is a Deus Ex machina, a short narrative that points the finger at a specific set of bad actors. I would be embarrassed to stand in front of a room of scientists, expose both hypotheses and then pretend that one is not clear, obviously better than the other.
Besides the fuzzy science, there is an undeniable political side to this argument. When violence against Asians in the United States increases, it is naive at best and violent at worst to argue that supporting an unproven hypothesis that clearly adds essence to the idea that China has inflicted COVID-19 on the world, that they or they do this for we, is a noble scientific impartiality. There is a choice here between two ideas – one that fits perfectly into the world of biology and the other that links conspiracy theory, political intrigue and xenophobia.
And since we’ll never be able to prove exactly when SARS-CoV-2 went from animal to human, it’s going to turn into a culture war instead. We are witnessing the birth in real time of a new axis of half-truths, convenient omissions and charlatans.
The most embarrassing part of all of this is that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 does not matter. Making China a scapegoat does nothing for the political and economic systems that have allowed millions of people to die, especially in wealthy countries like the United States which could easily afford tough public health responses. In March, Marion Renault wrote in The new republic:
“We have known for years, resource extraction and human expansion into wildlife habitats could lead to emerging zoonotic diseases. We know that inadequate health coverage and sick leave policies can spread disease; countless reports and studies in recent years have chronicled the drying up of public health resources, theerosion of science and public trust (anti-masking falls into this category), and the failures of the US healthcare system tofairly to bring affordable medical care to all.
Creating a webbed story of cover-up and conspiracy allows us to ignore how all humans caused the COVID-19 disaster. What if it wasn’t the fault of a bad Chinese government, but the fault of the whole world for destroying habitats, exploiting too deeply and creating the perfect conditions for natural viral fallout? The laboratory leak hypothesis will soon come hand in hand with climate change denial – a conspiracy that absolves humanity of its mistakes and allows us to live our lives as if nothing had happened.
This article was first published by Massive and has been reposted here with permission.