Explained: Why the US is investigating lab leak theory to unravel Covid-19 origins

Once dismissed by most public well being specialists and authorities officers, the speculation that Covid-19 leaked by accident from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny beneath a brand new US investigation.

Experts say the 90-day evaluation ordered on May 26 by President Joe Biden will push American intelligence businesses to accumulate extra data and evaluation what they have already got. Former State Department officers beneath President Donald Trump have publicly pushed for additional investigation into virus origins, as have scientists and the World Health Organization.

Many scientists, together with Dr Anthony Fauci, say they nonetheless consider the virus more than likely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to people. Virus researchers haven’t publicly recognized any key new scientific proof which may make the lab-leak speculation extra doubtless.

Virologists additionally say it is unlikely that any definitive reply about virus origins can be potential in 90 days. The work to totally affirm origins and pathways of previous viruses — resembling the first SARS or HIV/AIDS — has taken years or many years.

A have a look at what is recognized about the US investigation of the virus.


Biden ordered a evaluation of what the White House mentioned was an preliminary discovering main to “two likely scenarios,” an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House assertion says two businesses in the 18-member intelligence group lean towards the speculation of a transmission in nature; one other company leans towards a lab leak.

ALSO READ | Twisting tale of Covid-19 origin, possibly from Wuhan lab: A chronology

One doc drawing new consideration is a State Department reality sheet printed in the final days of Trump’s administration. The memo notes that the US believes three researchers at a Wuhan, China, lab sought medical therapy for a respiratory sickness in November 2019. However, the report is not conclusive: The origin and severity of the staffers’ sickness is not recognized — and most of the people in China recurrently go to hospitals, not primary-care physicians, for routine care.

The memo additionally pointed to “gain of function” research — which in theory might improve the lethality or transmissibility of a virus — allegedly achieved at the Wuhan lab with US backing. However, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has since adamantly denied that the US supported any “gain-of-function” analysis on coronaviruses in Wuhan.

David Feith, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs beneath Trump, mentioned he supported Biden’s name for an enhanced evaluation. “Implicit in the president’s statement is that there is more to analyze and more to collect than has been analyzed or collected to date,” Feith mentioned.

The Director of National Intelligence declined to remark.


The White House assertion criticized China for a scarcity of transparency, echoing earlier criticisms by Democrats and Republicans. “The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid -19,” the White House mentioned.

ALSO WATCH | China slams US over probe into Covid-19 origin

The Associated Press has reported on China’s interference in the World Health Organization’s probes of the virus and its fanning of conspiracy theories on-line. China has additionally compelled journalists to depart the nation in recent times and silenced or jailed whistleblowers from Wuhan and elsewhere.

The lack of transparency in China is a major and acquainted problem. But that doesn’t in itself sign that one thing particularly is being hidden.

“The problem is when you make that announcement (Biden’s call for investigation) in a highly politicized environment, it makes it even less likely that China will cooperate with efforts to find the origins of the virus,” mentioned Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for international well being at the Council on Foreign Relations.


The most compelling argument for investigating the chance of a lab leak is not any new arduous proof, however relatively the indisputable fact that one other pathway for virus unfold has not been 100 per cent confirmed.

“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” mentioned Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada. He pointed to the indisputable fact that spillover occasions when viruses soar from animals to people are widespread in nature, and that scientists already know of two related beta coronaviruses that advanced in bats and precipitated epidemics when people had been contaminated, SARS1 and MERS.

ALSO READ | How a Pune-based scientist couple linked origin of Covid-19 to Chinese Mojiang miners

However, the case is not fully closed. “There are probabilities, and there are possibilities,” mentioned Banerjee. “Because nobody has identified a virus that’s 100 per cent identical to SARS-CoV-2 in any animal, there is still room for researchers to ask about other possibilities.”


Confirming with 100 per cent certainty the origin of a virus is usually not quick, simple, or all the time even potential.

For instance, scientists by no means confirmed the origin of smallpox earlier than the illness was eradicated via a world vaccination program.

In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) a illness attributable to a beta coronavirus, like the present coronavirus researchers first recognized the virus in February 2003. Later that 12 months, scientists found the doubtless middleman hosts: Himalayan palm civets discovered at live-animal markets in Guangdong, China. But it wasn’t till 2017 that researchers traced the doubtless unique supply of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.


From a scientific perspective, researchers are all the time eager to higher perceive how ailments evolve. From a public well being perspective, if a virus has transitioned to being unfold principally by human-to-human contact, discovering its origins is not as important to methods for holding the illness.

“Questions of origins and questions of disease control are not the same thing once human-to-human transmission has become common,” mentioned Deborah Seligsohn, an knowledgeable in setting and public well being at Villanova University.

ALSO READ | Origin of Covid-19: Why Wuhan lab of China continues to be prime suspect

Republicans have pressed for extra inquiries right into a potential lab leak as a part of a broader effort to blame China and vindicate Trump’s dealing with of the pandemic. Nearly 600,000 individuals in the United States have died of Covid-19, the highest toll of any nation.


Many scientists warning that it’s unlikely a 90-day investigation will yield definitive new solutions.

“We rarely get a ‘smoking gun,’” mentioned Stephen Morse, a illness researcher at Columbia University. “Even under the best of circumstances we rarely get certainty, just degrees of likelihood.”

Any findings will doubtless be politically explosive, particularly if new proof comes to mild supporting or dismissing the zoonotic switch or lab-leak theory. And a failure to attain definitive conclusions, nearly inevitable after a 90-day evaluation, might present grist for Trump supporters and opponents alike, in addition to embolden conspiracy theorists.

Meanwhile specialists like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Huang suspect China might merely clamp down extra, including one other complication to already tense relations. “This will likely make it even more challenging to extract concessions from China to allow another team to visit Wuhan, or have unfettered access to investigate there,” he mentioned

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