It’s been months since a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the coronavirus disease’s (Covid-19) origins concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that; the highly transmissible virus “escaped” from a laboratory in China’s Wuhan.
Although this idea, dubbed by the media as the “lab leak” hypothesis; has its advocates in certain quarters, the reluctance of the wider scientific consensus to endorse it following the WHO report quickly led to it being branded a “conspiracy theory”.
However, some new developments put forward by media outlets in the US;—White House-led investigation efforts and statements by President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci—have brought the idea back into consideration.
Covid-19 origins: The debate
The debate on the pandemic’s origins primarily consists of two contending theories;—that of a “natural spillover” hypothesis and of a “lab leak”.
The first hypothesis brings with it the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 virus; which causes Covid-19, most likely “spilled over” from animals to humans through an emissary animal.
This was also the favoured hypothesis of the team of Chinese and international experts constituted by WHO; to investigate the pandemic’s origins.
In its 120-page report, the team said that the virus probably originated in a bat or a pangolin before making the leap to human beings; due to close contact which is not unlikely in a wet market.
The second idea, far more controversial, projects that SARS-CoV-2 accidentally leaked from a maximum-security biological laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and began to circulate soon after the onset of the pandemic.
Lab leaks are rare, compared to the huge work on infectious diseases all over the world.
Yet, they are not unknown — the smallpox virus leaked from a lab in the UK; anthrax from the US and SARS-1 may have had a few lab leaks after its natural spillover.
‘Lab leak’ hypothesis, back to notoriety
A few recent developments have somewhat revived the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan lab.
In an open letter published in the journal Science last month, more than a dozen scientists—top epidemiologists; immunologists and biologists—called for further investigation into both the hypotheses currently on the table and urged that; they “be taken seriously” until we have sufficient data.
Moreover, they questioned the WHO report and whether China was being fully transparent during that visit; stressing that an investigation should ideally minimise conflicts of interest as much as possible.
US infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci isn’t far behind in the race to scepticism, either.
In what can be seen as a complete U-turn from his earlier interview to the National Geographic last year; Dr Fauci acknowledged on May 11; that he is now “not convinced” that the virus developed naturally and called for a more thorough investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Two weeks later, President Biden, with the green signal from his adviser; instructed his intelligence agencies to double-down on their investigations into a possible laboratory leak of the virus responsible for the current pandemic.
Recent revelations by the Wall Street Journal have also pointed out that several WIV researchers became sick in the fall of 2019; with symptoms similar to “both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” and that at least three were hospitalised; adding fuel to the idea that the Covid-19 virus escaped from the Wuhan lab.
It is true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is one of the top virology labs in the world and research on coronaviruses is intensely conducted there; but China’s lack of openness in this matter has only fueled further speculation and distrust among the global scientific community.