Apr 19, 2023 - Health

The COVID origins debate isn't going away

Illustration of a gloved hand holding a petri dish with a question mark.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new report by Senate Republicans lays out one of the most comprehensive public cases to date for the theory that COVID originated from a lab accident, but its reliance on circumstantial evidence means the debate is far from settled.

The big picture: The report focuses largely on missing data and signs of biosafety issues that require interpretation.

Yes, but: The absence of evidence pointing, for example, to a precise transmission route from animals to humans will lead to very different interpretations of the same information.

  • The report "demonstrates, in my view, a political agenda that's meant to bolster the idea that the lab leak hypothesis is more supported than it is. But also it is so full of just factual errors," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist who has worked on research supporting the idea that COVID didn't come from a lab but spread naturally between species.

Go deeper: Here are some of the most compelling arguments made in the report, which was written by the staff of former Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) but wasn't released in full until this week, when Axios obtained a copy.

1. There's no evidence documenting which animal spread the virus to humans.

  • Scientists have not been able to find concrete evidence that animals at the wet market in Wuhan, China, that's been implicated in zoonotic transmission theories were infected by the virus, which means the details of how it would have spread to humans remain a mystery.
  • In fact, samples from the market are missing signs of the virus passing through animals at all, the report argues.
  • "Genetic analysis of published SARS-CoV-2 sequences from the early outbreak does not show evidence of genetic adaptation reflecting passage through susceptible animal species such as a palm civet, raccoon dog or mink. To this end, no intermediate host has been identified," the executive summary of the report argues.
  • The other side: "You would not expect to see 'animal adaptation' in a virus that is capable of infecting many different animal species and that just came from the animals," Rasmussen said.

2. The structure of SARS-COV-2 itself is suspicious.

  • The presence of a unique mutation known as a "furin cleavage site" on COVID's spike protein has long divided scientists over the question of whether it occurs naturally or was somehow engineered in a lab.
  • "The origin of the furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 remains an enigma to the question of possible origins," the report writes. "Its presence has been described by some as potential smoking gun evidence of genetic manipulation."
  • The other side: At least one virus like SARS-COV-2 that is very close to having a furin cleavage site has been found to exist in nature, Rasmussen said. "We just haven't found them all so we don't know how common it is," she added.

3. A research-related incident could include the escape of a lab animal.

  • The scenario is an intriguing one, because in a way it would make both camps right.
  • "Although no evidence was found that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sold experimental animals rather than destroying them, there is precedent for such behavior in China," the report writes. "Thus, the possible escape of an infected experimental animal from the WIV is a plausible explanation for causing the first human infections."
  • The WIV had been interested in research on SARS-related viruses ahead of the pandemic, per the report, including "increasingly sophisticated coronavirus experiments using humanized mice, bats and palm civets." The report cedes that the "full scope and scale" of those animal experiments are unclear.
  • The other side: "There's no evidence that they were actually working with any of those species at the Wuhan Institute of Virology," Rasmussen said. "It just doesn't seem plausible to me that there was some kind of secret raccoon dog or palm civet or Malayan porcupine work happening at the WIV."

4. Evidence shows that the WIV was vulnerable to an accident.

  • "Leading up to the pandemic, the WIV had significant biosafety and biosecurity shortcomings that were detailed in U.S. State Department cables, administrative reports, academic publications, biosafety patents and procurements," the report states.
  • "The convergence of sophisticated coronavirus research, government demands for scientific breakthroughs, and biosafety problems at the WIV appears to have peaked in the late-summer or early-fall of 2019," it adds.
  • The other side: The data presented in the report "does not seem like reports of biosafety incidents. They seem like normal maintenance and procedures of a biocontainment laboratory," Rasmussen said.

5. If there's a smoking gun for the lab leak theory, we probably know where to find it.

  • Although there's no evidence that the institute had a virus similar enough to COVID to have plausibly started the pandemic, there's a big gap in the data that it's disclosed.
  • A WIV database "reportedly held an estimated 100 unpublished sequences of the beta-coronavirus subgenus to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs. The existence of these undisclosed sequences raises the possibility that strains may exist that are closer progenitors to SARS-CoV-2," the report writes.
  • The other side: We don't know what was in that database, meaning all we can do is speculate about it.

6. The timing of Chinese vaccines raises some red flags.

  • A patent for a Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate was filed in late February of 2020, and the report says that at least two vaccines may have been under development beginning in November 2019. That would mean vaccine development was underway before China had officially confirmed any cases.
  • It argues that the vaccine work itself may have been the source of the pandemic: "The preponderance of information affirms the plausibility of a research-related incident that was likely unintentional resulting from failures of biosafety containment during vaccine-related research."
  • The other side: Rasmussen said she isn't convinced by patent dates, and that it doesn't make sense to her that the WIV would be "preemptively making a vaccine for a virus that had not been characterized or described."
  • "All of that is like, well what if? Sure, what if? But any evidence to back that up? No, there’s no evidence to back that up," she added.
Go deeper