The world of science has learned plenty about how the coronavirus behaves and spreads, but “more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic,” a group of 18 scientists from top universities and medical centers said Friday.
Their letter in the journal “Science” says it is important to understand whether the pathogen first detected in Wuhan, China, escaped from a lab or slipped into humans from the animal world, given the scale of destruction and implications for future outbreaks.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks,” they wrote.
The origins of the coronavirus that wreaked havoc across the globe remain an enduring mystery as countries try to vaccinate their way out of the mess.
Scientists initially pointed to wild-animal markets in Wuhan, saying the pathogen may have leaped from bats to human through an intermediary animal. But theories that it escaped from a sophisticated lab in the central Chinese city gained traction.
Officials from the Trump administration, in particular, pointed to the lab theory as viable after the communist government in Beijing downplayed and covered up the extent of the crisis in the early days of the outbreak.
Scientists who penned the Science letter said a joint study between China and the World Health Organization was lacking.
“Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as ‘likely to very likely,’ and a laboratory incident as ‘extremely unlikely,’” they wrote. “Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration.”
The scientists said WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus highlighted the disparity and offered to provide new resources to evaluate the lab possibility.
“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve,” they wrote. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”
The scientists, who come from distinguished institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, stressed that at a time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, “it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus — often at great personal cost.”
“We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue,” they wrote.