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The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images The COVID lab-leak theory goes mainstream

A group of high-profile scientists published a letter calling for renewed investigation into the origins of COVID-19 — including the theory that it spilled out of a virology lab.

Why it matters: The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a Chinese lab and accidentally escaped — rather than emerging naturally from an animal — was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory. But the letter shows a potential lab leak is increasingly being taken seriously.

Driving the news: In the letter published Thursday in the journal Science, a group of prominent epidemiologists and biologists wrote "theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable."

Flashback: A World Health Organization-led investigation in China earlier this year concluded a zoonotic spillover from an animal was "likely to very likely," while a lab leak of a human-made virus was dismissed as "extremely unlikely."

  • The letter in Science, though, notes "the two theories were not given balanced consideration," with only four out of the report's 313 pages addressing the possibility of a laboratory accident.

Between the lines: In a contentious exchange with Sen. Rand Paul this week, Anthony Fauci said he was "fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China," while denying the National Institutes of Health had funded any "gain of function" research in China's Wuhan Institute of Virology.

  • Former New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade raised more questions recently with a long article noting, among other things, the paucity of any clear evidence of a zoological spillover more than 16 months after the pandemic began.

The bottom line: Given the Chinese government's opacity on the issue, we may never know the true origins of a virus that has killed millions of people.

Go deeper

Latin American countries begin offering booster shots

An Uruguayan who received Sinovac for his first two doses gets a Pfizer shot as a booster on Aug. 16. Photo: Ana Ferreira/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chile, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic have begun vaccinating their citizens with a third dose of coronavirus immunizations as COVID-19 continues to ravage Latin America and the Caribbean.

Driving the news: Their experience bears watching now that the U.S. has determined booster shots will be needed around eight months after the first immunization period.

Updated Aug 23, 2021 - Health

PM extends New Zealand lockdown, says elimination goal "absolutely" right

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reacts during a COVID-19 response update at Parliament on Saturday in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Robert Kitchin/Pool/Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday that New Zealand's pandemic elimination strategy was working, as she announced an extension to the nationwide lockdown due to a growing COVID-19 Delta outbreak.

Why it matters: NZ locked down last Tuesday after detecting the first community case in nearly six months — marking the arrival of the Delta variant in the island nation. The cluster has grown to 107 cases, with 35 more people testing positive for the virus Monday.

Aug 23, 2021 - Health

U.K. launching COVID antibody surveillance program

University Hospital Monklands staff check the medical notes of a COVID-19 patient in February, Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The British government announced Sunday that it's launching a national surveillance program to measure antibodies in people who test positive for COVID-19.

Why it matters: The U.K. Health Security Agency said in a statement that its program would improve understanding of immunity and the protection provided by antibodies generated following coronavirus infection and vaccination.