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  • Writer's pictureP.K. Peterson

The Fraught Search for the Origin of the COVID-19 Pandemic

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

- Henry Ford

“It’s always too soon to quit.”

- Norman Vincent Peale, American minister and author

The origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown. Most scientists consider solving this mystery to be crucial for preventing future pandemics. The status of the investigation into COVID-19’s genesis is the subject of this week’s Germ Gems post.

Leading theories of COVID’s origin. The COVID-19 pandemic started as an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China in early December 2019. By January 7, 2020, Chinese scientists had isolated the causal agent, a new type of coronavirus (soon named SARS-CoV-2). Three days later, China shared the nature of the SARS-Co-V-2 RNA genome with the rest of the world. This discovery also heralded the beginning of the mystery that continues to this day—where did SARS-CoV-2 come from and how did it first make its way into humans?

In early 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a 28-day fact-finding mission to Wuhan seeking clues about COVID-19’s origin. On February 11, 2021, this team of scientists reported their findings. They presented four main theories on how SARS-CoV-2 might have spread to humans: (1) a spillover into a single person from an infected horseshoe bat; (2) transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans from a reservoir infected animal (e.g., pangolins, mink, or cats); (3) a SARS-CoV-2-contaminated cold chain product (frozen food) shipped to Wuhan from outside China; and (4) a leak of SARS-CoV-2 from a laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a world class research institution focused on coronavirus virology and on bat biology. Additionally, they considered a wet market in or near Wuhan as a potential source of SARS-CoV-2-infected bats or a reservoir species.

The uproar begins. An intense debate arose over the veracity of WHO’s investigation. The reasons for this firestorm are complex but include legitimate differences of scientific opinion, concerns about conflicts of interest among some members of the WHO investigative team, and perhaps most importantly, politics. In their report to WHO, the scientists downplayed the fourth theory as “extremely unlikely,” thereby essentially exonerating the Chinese government. This was huge a public relations win for China.

Only two “origin” theories remain viable today: (1) transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans from an as-yet-to-be-discovered infected reservoir animal; and (2) a leak of SARS-CoV-2 from a laboratory in the WIV. This second scenario, framed as a “conspiracy theory,” is known as the “COVID-19 Lab-Leak Theory” and implicates Chinese scientists at the WIV and a cover-up by the Chinese government.

The Lab-Leak Theory hypothesizes that WIV scientists carried out “gain of function” research, that is, they manipulated the genome of a SARS-CoV2-related coronavirus to increase its transmissibility from human to human. Further, it is speculated that one of these WIV researchers, who was accidently infected with this lab-made, genetically engineered virus, became ill with COVID-19 and unintentionally brought SARS-CoV-2 to the Wuhan community where it spread like wildfire. It is also proposed that the Chinese government was complicit and did everything it could to bury this story and hide the truth.

The controversy over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to grow, fueled mainly by the COVID-19 Lab-Leak Theory. This caused President Joe Biden to announce on May 26, 2021 that he had asked the Intelligence Community (IC) “to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion.”

On August 26, the IC announced their conclusions. “The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged.” They added, “China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States. These actions reflect, in part, China’s government’s own uncertainty about where an investigation could lead as well as its frustration that the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China.”

Next steps in the search for COVID-19’s origin. In the interim between the WHO’s very first investigation of COVID’s origins in early 2020 and now, impressive progress has been made in the fields of coronavirus virology and bat epidemiology. In addition, highly-respected research leaders have published a number of articles on COVID’s origins that have appeared in first-rate journals, such as, Science, Nature, and Cell. The consensus reached among these research communities is that: (1) the evidence so far is inconclusive (both the animal spillover hypothesis and the Lab-Leak Theory remain viable and in need of further investigation); and (2) future investigations should be driven by science that is free of political meddling.

Rebooting the WHO investigation. On October 13, 2021, the WHO named a scientific advisory group (SAGO) to investigate the origins of novel pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, chosen from 700 applicants, includes scientists from 26 countries. Among them are Dr. Inger Damon, a veteran of the U.S.’s Ebola response who directs work on highly lethal diseases at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Yungui Yang, the deputy director at the Beijing Institute on Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and, to help ensure that the Lab-Leak Theory is seriously explored, the head of a Swiss biosafety center.

Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, appealed to everyone to get the mission right this time, “[This] is a human endeavor to understand a virus that has stopped our world. And I would ask everyone, countries, journalists and everybody else, to create a little space for that discussion to happen because this is probably, right now, this is our best chance, and it may be our last chance, to understand the origins of this virus in a collegiate, collective and mutually responsible way.”

Since 2000, three deadly coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2) have caused pandemics wreaking havoc on mankind. Finding the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the most important step that can be taken to stop yet another coronavirus pandemic from occurring in this century. Let’s all hope that politics gets out of the way and that science is given an unhindered opportunity to solve this mystery soon.

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Main Page images courtesy of Shuxian Hu, MD. Dr. Hu is a scientist in the Neuroimmunology Research Laboratory at the University of Minnesota.

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