Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about whether the virus that causes COVID-19 could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Some scientists and politicians circulated this idea, but there was no substantiated evidence to back it up.
The most likely story is that the virus crossed over from animals, probably bats, into an intermediary species, before making the jump to humans. That’s how SARS and MERS ended up in humans: we got SARS from palm civets, and MERS from camels.
That said, we still don’t know where COVID-19 came from. We have some evidence to support the natural spillover idea. For example, most of the people in Wuhan who had Covid-like symptoms in December of 2019 were exposed to animals before they got sick. But, we still haven’t found a bat or pangolin in the wild that has COVID-19. We have no smoking gun, if you will.
In the absence of that proof, some people think something else must have created the pandemic. We have no hard evidence to support the lab leak idea, let alone a smoking gun to validate that hypothesis. But despite pushback on this story from many scientists and the media early on, it’s back in the news, and many are talking about the possibility of a lab leak — even President Joe Biden. On May 26, the White House released a statement asking US intelligence to further investigate the origins of COVID-19. There may be some legitimate reasons to do this, but the debate has gotten heated. And when a conversation is centered around controversy, instead of science, we can lose sight of the bigger, more important picture.
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On this week’s episode of PODCAST-19, we called up two science journalists who’ve been reporting on the lab leak story since the beginning of the pandemic to help us keep things in perspective. You can listen to that episode or read an edited transcript of it below.
Nsikan Akpan: I’m Nsikan Akpan. I am the Health and Science editor at New York Public Radio.
Amy Maxmen: I am Amy Maxmen, and I’m a senior reporter at Nature.
Anna Rothschild: For a little more background on these two, Nsikan holds a doctorate in pathobiology, and Amy has won multiple awards for her reporting on infectious diseases like Ebola and malaria.
So, early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about whether COVID-19 came from a lab leak in China. And then it seemed like that conversation largely disappeared in most mainstream media until fairly recently. So what happened?
Amy Maxmen: I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. My thought is that the crisis was really heavy in the U.S. last year, and [now] it’s sort of subsiding here. So part of me wonders if the news is sort of returning to this because the daily cycle of news on other acute crises is sort of waning within the U.S. That’s not the whole answer, but I wonder if that’s part of it.
Nsikan Akpan: I would say that these questions about the origins of the virus never really went away. There were some stories, this past fall and winter, that were digging on this issue. And so I think this stuff was always brewing. And it just happens that we’ve reached a tipping point.
Anna Rothschild: That tipping point seems to be two recent Wall Street Journal articles. The first, published May 23, said that three staff members from the Wuhan Institute of Virology got sick and went to the hospital around the same time in November 2019. The report hasn’t been disclosed to the public, and U.S. intelligence officials are debating among themselves about its veracity.
Amy Maxmen: Ok, they went to the hospital. Well, I think the article also includes that in China, a lot of people don’t have, say, a primary care doctor. So they might have just gone to the hospital because they were sick from anything. It doesn’t mean they’re severely sick.
Anna Rothschild: The second article from the Journal noted that in 2012, researchers from the same institute in Wuhan collected coronavirus samples from bats that had formed a colony in an abandoned mine.
Amy Maxmen: And, apparently, a journalist recently tried to go to the cave and Chinese authorities stopped that journalist from going to the cave and questioned him. Which you could say, what are they hiding in that case? I can tell you I have been told not to go so many places in my reporting career.
Anna Rothschild: Both Amy and Nsikan pointed to possible global geo-political reasons for the conversation restarting. For example, last week was the World Health Assembly.
Amy Maxmen: And that’s when the WHO, and 194 countries that belong to the WHO meet to sort of talk about the pandemic, and talk about strategies around solving this pandemic and preparing for the next one. So I think that might be a rallying cry for a lot of researchers and other people who believe there needs to be another investigation into COVID origins. This is sort of a time to voice that and get it heard on a high level.
Nsikan Akpan: Jumping off of that, you know, I think the big lead up this year was the World Health Organization conducted a joint commission with China, and then they put out this report, sort of summarizing everything that they found, and it didn’t quite stick the landing. There was still a lot of open questions. You know we know from psychological research, research on social behaviors, that uncertainty in the mind can be really unsettling. And people will tend to try to fill those voids with whatever they can.
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Anna Rothschild: Investigations like this don’t usually happen quickly like they do in the movies. For example, we’ve known about Ebola since 1976. Since then, scientists have taken samples from thousands of animals, including shrews and lizards. Yet we still haven’t definitively identified the zoonotic origins of the virus.
What mistakes do you think the media has made while telling this story that may have made it more divisive?
Nsikan Akpan: You don’t have science and health journalists at every news outlet. And so I think it’s easier for news media to just hop on, “Hey, well, this person said it could be a lab leak, and they didn’t present any evidence, but they said it.” So we can make news around that versus like, “Oh, I have to go and dig into some pretty complicated science to break down what happened here”.
Anna Rothschild: Nsikan told me that one piece of evidence for the natural spillover hypothesis is that there are features of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in fact parts of its spike protein, that indicate it evolved in animals. But to an average news consumer, this evidence gets complicated by the fact that supporters of the lab leak hypothesis—including some scientists—say similar things, only reversed. They think that certain features of SARS-CoV-2 could only have developed in a lab.
Nsikan Akpan: The thing is those unique features — that people who support the lab leak hypothesis are pointing out — we do see similar features in other coronaviruses. Like, they might not be in the exact same family SARS-Cov-2, but we are seeing those features in other coronaviruses. Like, you know, that is just something that isn’t getting said in those stories. And I don’t know why.
Amy Maxmen: I think maybe there was one virologist who mentioned sometimes it reminds him of intelligent design sort of arguments. For people who haven’t really studied evolutionary biology, there could be just sort of this thought of like, “No way, can this just happen. This has to be designed to be like this.” But I think people who study evolution are like, “Wow, there’s a lot of creative things that happen in nature. And you know, there could be convergence like this same mutation happening in different lineages, and we can see it in other different coronaviruses.” So maybe there’s an appeal there. It’s a simpler story, thinking that it was designed to be that way.
Anna Rothschild: How do you explain mass tragedy, right? Like, it’s really hard to think that it just comes out of nowhere. It’s sort of easier to feel like humans have agency over it in some way.
Nsikan Akpan: Yeah I mean, it speaks to this idea that uncertainty can be really unsettling. And we also want to be in control of what happens around us. And we want to think that there’s an intentionality to most things. But we live in a chaotic universe, and sometimes things just line up.
Anna Rothschild: Why is it important to know where this virus came from?
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Nsikan Akpan: I mean, if you do have an animal species out there that is a vector or a carrier for this disease, you want to know about it. You know, if this is something that came from a farm, or if it came from a jungle, or if it came from a mountain cave, I think you want to know what the risks might be, so I think knowing this source is really important for that reason.
Amy Maxmen: I sort of call out the idea that this is the number one way to prevent a pandemic. You know, I think it is important, and I’m, like, super interested in this stuff. But I don’t know if knowing the source of this emerging pandemic is going to stop us from preventing the next one, because they seem to come from different animals for different reasons. I think what we should be doing is really thinking about, what are our surveillance systems like? How are we going to catch these spillovers faster? How are we going to respond to them? How are countries going to report them to each other? Do we have stockpiles of protective gear? Can we make vaccines fast? I feel like those are some of the really important issues. And I want to be clear, I’m not against studies. I’m just sort of thinking big picture here, how much does screaming about this issue, detract from other issues?
Anna Rothschild: As soon as the lab leak story dropped in early 2020, it became highly politicized. Former President Trump and Secretary Mike Pompeo amplified the idea, and it set up a sort of us vs them mentality with China.
Amy Maxmen: The U.S. was doing really bad then. You know, COVID had been surging. And it looks bad for leaders to say what’s going on in our country. What’s happening here, are we to blame for what’s going on here? And it is a way of deflecting attention by saying, let’s look at China again, and what China did.
Nsikan Akpan: And then I think you also have to look at the broader geopolitical context at the time. There’s the US-China trade war. People just have really strong opinions about China. And I think you can see everything sort of balling together.
Anna Rothschild: What do you think the long term impacts of this kind of debate are?
Amy Maxmen: I can tell you my fears.
Anna Rothschild: Yeah! Tell me.
Amy Maxmen: To be honest, the statement that Biden put out and the statement that HHS put out at the World Health Assembly, to me, they’re, they’re fine. You know, we haven’t ruled out the lab leak hypothesis. We don’t know the origin. So yes, new studies sound fine. But if this sort of rhetoric continues, that we’re going to continue to hammer China on this question, and it’s going to become more and more allegations, I’m really worried about that. I mean, on a geopolitical level, I’ve read accounts of how global health was really difficult to do during the Cold War period. It doesn’t bode well to have these two powers at each other’s throats. And I don’t think that’s helpful for science.
Nsikan Akpan: What does that do long term in terms of like politics in terms of feelings towards China in terms of feelings towards Asian Americans with all the Asian American hate that we’re seeing? That uncertainty is unsettling for me.
Anna Rothschild: At the end of the day, we all want the same things: to get out of this pandemic, and figure out how to prevent the next one. Discovering where this virus came from may be one piece of that. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned since COVID-19 emerged over a year ago, it’s that we can’t beat this virus alone. Through divisiveness we only harm ourselves.
That’s it for this episode of PODCAST-19. If you have a question you’d like us to answer on the show, email us a voice memo at email@example.com. That’s “ask podcast one nine at gmail dot com.” I’m Anna Rothschild. Our producer is Sinduja Srinivasan. Chadwick Matlin is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.