US intelligence services have just briefed the president, Joe Biden, on the results of their 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19. They were asked to test two hypotheses: that it had a “natural” origin, or that it escaped from a lab. Preliminary reports suggest that their findings are inconclusive.
Few scientists will be surprised by this, and yet the investigation has been the subject of intense – and intensely divisive – political and media interest over the past three months. The White House has promised more detail, which could be illuminating, especially if it reveals the genetic sequences of viruses related to the one that causes Covid-19, Sars-CoV-2, that were being studied in labs in Wuhan in 2019. But that won’t change the fact that two investigations down, we’re still in the dark as to how this pandemic started.
Biden ordered the latest investigation partly because of widespread dissatisfaction with one set up by the World Health Organization (WHO), which reported in March that a lab origin was “extremely unlikely”. Many saw the WHO’s efforts as compromised because China used its influence within the organisation to set restrictive terms of reference. It’s hard to see why the new investigation, from a single nation locked in a trade war with China, and from intelligence services to boot – not a source often lauded for transparency – should be accorded any more credibility. It should have been conducted by a coalition of national science academies. They still might not have reached any firm conclusions, but they would have had more chance of being seen as independent.
The WHO is promising a new investigation, and there may be others. Whether these will add anything is again questionable, but it’s important that scientists continue to try to get at the truth, and that we all acknowledge that it might take them years to do so. It’s difficult to trace the origins of a pandemic. Here’s just one example of the challenges.
Much has been made of the finding that some Italians may have been carrying antibodies to Sars-CoV-2 as early as September 2019, several months before the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in China. (Nobody’s suggesting the pandemic started in Italy, only that it might have come out of China earlier than thought.) But if those antibodies really were to Sars-CoV-2 – which some researchers doubt – it’s odd that the wave of Covid-19 infection they indicate wasn’t followed by a wave of hospitalisations and deaths, as it was later in China. What’s more, those antibody carriers didn’t go to the doctor with Covid symptoms, they went for other reasons. If the earliest Chinese cases were also mild or asymptomatic, how will researchers find them?
To be clear, the only reason these investigations are valuable is scientific – because the knowledge they provide could help prevent something similar from happening again. Even if it could be proved to many people’s satisfaction that a lab accident triggered the pandemic, it’s unlikely that any punishment could be meted out or compensation demanded. As Thomas Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang of the US Council on Foreign Relations have written, a lab accident is not a violation of any international law, and even if it were, establishing causation would be tricky. As they point out, taking the US perspective: “Many nations faced similar challenges in this pandemic and did not suffer the United States’ poor health outcomes.”
The ongoing debate over Covid’s origins has had good and bad outcomes. A good outcome is that it has shone a spotlight on the fact that, as biosecurity experts Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz reported in May, labs authorised to deal with the most dangerous pathogens have been proliferating in an almost complete vacuum of regulation or oversight. One component of the oversight that should now be put in place is independent, international inspection teams. A model already exists for these, in the WHO’s protocol for overseeing the two labs – one Russian, one American – that hold the last stockpiles of variola virus, which causes the now eradicated disease smallpox.
A bad outcome is that at least part of the scientific community – supposedly the bulwark that protects us from propaganda – has bought into the false dichotomy of two “rival” hypotheses for Covid’s origins. It’s as if they were looking at one of those ambiguous images, and seeing either a duck or a rabbit when both are in the picture. In reality it isn’t natural origins versus lab leak; it’s long-term human activity versus short-term human activity. Natural ceases to mean much in this context.
In fact, since the evidence is by now overwhelmingly that long-term human activity is accelerating the emergence of novel pathogens and increasing the risk of pandemics, the question investigators should really be asking is: did some recent, one-off event such as a lab accident exacerbate the already high and growing risk of spillover of a virus with pandemic potential caused by a decades-long shift towards industrialised farming and the wildlife trade?
Through their reliance on antibiotics, livestock monocultures and crowding, industrial-scale farms are ratcheting up the virulence of animal pathogens that the wildlife trade – and one of its shop windows, wet markets – is bringing into contact with potential host species they wouldn’t otherwise encounter, including us. This is not news. As the journalist Felicity Lawrence wrote in 2009, during the swine flu pandemic: “Novel human disease is the toxic debt of today’s industrial livestock farming.”
Here’s something worth reflecting on: in recent decades, most spillover events of highly pathogenic avian influenza – still considered the disease most likely to cause a future pandemic – occurred in countries with generally good biosecurity but lots of intensive poultry farming. The reason more of them didn’t seed outbreaks is that they were nipped in the bud through good disease surveillance – the US being a leader in this. If high-security labs are enjoying a boom, prestige and biowarfare deterrence may have something to do with it, but it’s also because dangerous pathogens are booming.
The false dichotomy that has been set up over Covid’s origins is hard to challenge. Until a year ago, scientists who collaborated across national and disciplinary borders were applauded. Now they’re accused of conflicts of interest – meaning that many of the people who know most about what happened, or are best qualified to find out, have been silenced. Meanwhile the behemoth that is the global livestock industry goes about its toxic business untroubled by any real scrutiny. This week, Marco Marani of the University of Padova in Italy and colleagues reported that the probability of an individual experiencing a Covid-like pandemic in their lifetime, currently about 38%, could double within a few decades. Unless scientists stand back and look at the bigger picture, it won’t stop there.