More than one year into the coronavirus pandemic, which has left three million people dead and shut down the world’s economies, health officials are still grappling with the question of how the novel virus originated.
A month-long World Health Organization investigation concluded that Covid-19 likely originated in an animal – potentially from wildlife farms – and then jumped into a human host before spreading throughout Wuhan, China. But the world health agency was unable to find definitive proof of the virus’ origin.
The uncertainty has led to a different theory that the virus was developed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research lab that studies coronaviruses, and then escaped the facility.
What started out as a conspiracy theory has since gained traction due to the insufficient proof of the virus’ origins and China’s lack of transparency amid the pandemic – and it has led to prominent United States officials calling for a deeper investigation into the Wuhan lab. President Biden ordered an intelligence community investigation into the origins of Covid on Wednesday, with a report due in 90 days. Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s top Covid adviser said this week he is “not convinced” the virus developed naturally.
Is it possible Covid-19 originated in a lab before it leaked out to the public? The Chinese government claims the investigation is complete and closed for further debate.
What new evidence has developed from the theory?
A US Intelligence report found that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
It’s not clear if the researchers contracted Covid-19 but a US State Department fact sheet, issued in the final days of the Trump administration, said they experienced “symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness”.
The lab has strongly denied the report, and scientists previously said the institute did not come in contact with Covid-19 until 30 December, 2019.
Health officials estimated that Covid-19 first started circulating in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. The Chinese government has said that the first known case of someone contracting the virus was a man who fell ill on 8 December, 2019.
Investigators with the WHO conducted an in-depth study into the different possible origins of the novel virus, which was published in collaboration with the Chinese government in March. At the time, the investigation concluded that while researchers didn’t yet know how the disease evolved, it was likely transferred from bats into humans – or from bats, to another animal, and then into humans.
This study from the WHO went on to argue that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus originated in the lab and then leaked to the public. But investigators acknowledged that reports of researchers contracting the virus in December went against the theory.
But now a US intelligence report indicates researchers in the lab were sick as early as November, not December.
Part of the reason why the theory of the virus originating in a lab has gained traction among health officials and scientists was because of the lack of transparency coming out of China.
The Wuhan lab has yet to share raw data or lab records about its work in studying coronavirus in bats – which was what officials have said was the most likely origin of the novel virus.
That’s why Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, has said that he does “not believe this assessment was extensive enough” and has called for an additional investigation into the Wuhan lab.
How has China responded?
China has strongly contested that a lab accident set off the pandemic.
China has pointed to the country allowing a WHO-led team into Wuhan for four weeks to investigate the theory and visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Based on the results of the study, Chinese government officials have claimed debate should cease on the theory.
“The United States continues to hype up the lab leak theory. Does it care about traceability or is it just trying to distract attention?” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a statement responding to the Journal report.
China has instead asked the WHO to look into other potential origins of the novel virus, like if it was circulating elsewhere prior to the first recorded case in Wuhan.
“Currently, [in] the WHO-convened origins tracing study, China’s part has been completed,” a Chinese delegate told diplomats during a videoconference meeting on Tuesday, according to The Wall Street Journal. “China supports the scientists to conduct a global origin tracing cooperation. We call on all parties to adopt an open and transparent attitude to cooperate with the WHO in origins tracing.”
International scientists and researchers have agreed there is currently no definitive evidence that the spread of the virus could be linked to a lab incident, but there was also no substantive proof of the initial theory that Covid-19 spread from animals to humans.
China has faced international scrutiny and backlash for how it responded to the novel virus since the early days of the pandemic.
Early into the outbreak, the Chinese government did not appropriately warn the proper agencies about the spreading novel virus. The country’s officials initially blamed transmission on a seafood market in Wuhan, but that claim has since been deemed a lie, according to Jamie Metzl, an adviser to the WHO.
“Whatever the origin of the pandemic, that first month when China was spending all of its energy trying to cover things up rather than fix the problem, that was what allowed the stove fire to become a kitchen fire to become a house fire to become a world fire,” Mr Metzl told CNN.
China has refused an open investigation into the origins of Covid-19. The country instead allowed the WHO to perform its four-week investigation under strict parameters, which international health experts have said could have led to political interference of the study’s results.
What are top US officials now saying?
Mr Biden released a statement on Wednesday that called for the US Intelligence Community to further investigate the potential origins of Covid-19 amid growing uncertainty surrounding the Wuhan lab leak theory.
“I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” the president said.
This inquiry would not just look into the origin of the virus, but it would also seek more answers from China about its involvement in the global pandemic.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Mr Biden said, adding: “The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.”
This comes one day after Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the World Health Organization during an annual ministerial meeting that international experts should be given “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak”.
Dr Facui, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has long stated that he believed the virus likely originated naturally. But following the report from The Wall Street Journal, Dr Fauci said he’s not 100 per cent “convinced” anymore about Covid-19’s origins.
“Because we don’t know 100 per cent what the origin is, it’s imperative that we look and we do an investigation,” Dr Fauci said during a press briefing on Tuesday.
Andy Slavitt, a White House adviser on the coronavirus response, also spoke out about the transparency the world needed, but lacking from China.
“It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China. We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now,” Mr Slavitt said during the same press briefing. “That’s a critical priority for us.”
A group of 18 scientists from the US, UK, Canada, and Switzerland released a joint letter on Friday stating that the lab leak theory was still “viable” based on current information.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the authors wrote in the letter, which was published in the journal Science.
The scientists targeted the WHO investigation in their letter, stating that the two origin theories “were not given balanced consideration” by investigators.
Health officials have warned other pandemics would likely happen, which has put pressure on the world to discover the true origins of Covid-19 in an effort to prevent the same detrimental impact that the current virus has caused on communities during future outbreaks.