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The lab-leak hypothesis for COVID-19 is becoming a conspiracy theory

To explain where SARS-CoV-2 came from, look at processes with scientific explanations and precedents

Dan Samorodnitsky

Senior Editor

No one knows for sure where SARS-CoV-2 came from. I don’t know, no one does. But there are two ideas. The first is the virus was harbored by an unknown animal, likely bats, where it mutated and picked up the ability to infect humans. Many pandemic viruses — Ebola, the 1918 flu — emerged this way. The other is that the virus was deliberately created in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center near to where initial outbreaks were first detected in China.

Though there is no direct evidence for either idea, the natural origins hypothesis has scientific precedence. The coronavirus family of viruses, that SARS-CoV-2 is a part of, have spilled over into humans (SARS and MERS) and caused pandemics. Natural origin also takes into consideration natural phenomena that happen all the time in wild viruses — they reproduce rapidly, mutate frequently, acquire bits of DNA like a boat collecting barnacles, and change behavior, particularly when they shift from one host to another. These processes happen in all viruses.

But, the permanent uncertainty of SARS-CoV-2’s origins has made other explanations, no matter how complex, attractive. Now, the lab-leak hypothesis has taken on the rhythm and melody of conspiracy theory.

The huge “scoop” from the Wall Street Journal earlier this week is that three staffers at the Wuhan Institute for Virology had become ill in late 2019, during cold and flu season. The article quotes a Trump official who said it sounded fishy, and that’s it. There is no even indirect scientific evidence that the virus was created in a lab. Nevertheless, there seems to be some wish, some desire for China to be implicated in a cover-up.

In 2002, SARS spilled over from horseshoe bats into humans. MERS, caused by another coronavirus, spilled over from camels in 2012. Related coronaviruses within SARS-CoV-2’s subfamily have been identified in wild bats and pangolins. And, the virus's features that seem to scream out for the hand of a synthetic biologist are better explained by the kind of random, driftwood mutations that viruses pick up constantly. 

SARS-CoV-2 uses its spike protein to bind tightly to ACE2, a protein on cell surfaces in humans and other animals. But, research has shown that this binding is actually not biochemically ideal, which makes the idea that it was synthetically created less likely; this ability to bind ACE2 could have easily arisen through common routes of mutation. The ballyhooed “furin cleavage site” — a site where the viral spike protein is cut, facilitating infection into a cell — was created by an out-of-sequence insertion of a small piece of DNA resulting in yet another non-ideal biochemical reaction.

New viruses emerge all the time. Constantly. The number of viral particles on the planet is more than the number of stars in the universe; the rate that viruses reproduce, their ability to quickly mutate and adapt to new environments and new hosts, means there are functionally an infinite number of viruses on the planet.

So, figuring out where this particular virus came from will be a challenge. It can take years, decades, or more to find the source of a virus. Ebola, for instance, was identified in 1976, has caused multiple epidemics, and we still don’t really know what animal it spilled over from. To confirm beyond a reasonable doubt the virus’s origins, we’d have to sample wild animals and sequence the viruses they carry to find a close genetic relative, an astronomical task, haystacks within haystacks. In the absence of a smoking gun, there's still good research that points in one direction. Take the phylogenetic analysis in preprint this week that, once again, suggests bats as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, with pangolins or civets as possible intermediate steps. 

If the question is “are both hypotheses possible?” the answer is yes. Both are possible. If the question  is “are they equally likely?” the answer is absolutely not. One hypothesis requires a colossal cover-up and the silent, unswerving, leak-proof compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians, and government officials for over a year. The other requires only for biology to behave as it always has, for a family of viruses that have done this before to do it again. The zoonotic spillover hypothesis is simple and explains everything. It’s scientific malpractice to pretend that one idea is equally as meritorious as the other. The lab-leak hypothesis is a scientific deus ex machina, a narrative shortcut that points a finger at a specific set of bad actors. I would be embarrassed to stand up in front of a room of scientists, lay out both hypotheses, and then pretend that one isn’t clearly, obviously better than the other. 

Besides the hazy science, there is an undeniable political aspect to this argument. When violence against Asian people in the US is spiking, it’s naive at best and violent gaslighting at worst to pretend that supporting an evidence-free hypothesis that clearly adds fuel to the idea that China inflicted COVID-19 upon the world, that they did this to us, is noble scientific dispassion. There’s a choice being made here between two ideas — one that falls neatly within the world of biology, and the other that knots together conspiracy theory, political intrigue, and xenophobia.

And since we will never be able to prove the exact moment that SARS-CoV-2 jumped from an animal to a human, this is instead going to devolve into a culture war. We are witnessing the real-time birth of a new axis of half-truths, convenient omissions, and quackery.

The most bothersome thing about all this is that it does not particularly matter where SARS-CoV-2 came from. Making a scapegoat out of China doesn’t do anything about the political and economic systems that allowed millions to die, especially in wealthy nations like the US that could easily afford muscular public health responses. In March, Marion Renault wrote in The New Republic:

“We have known for years that resource extraction and human expansion into wildlife habitats could lead to emergent zoonotic diseases. We have known that inadequate health coverage and sick leave policies could spread illness; countless reports and studies in recent years have chronicled the draining of public health resources, the erosion of science and public trust in it (anti-masking falls into this category), and the failures of the U.S. health care system to equitably provide affordable medical care to all.”  

Creating a webbed story of cover-ups and conspiracy allows us to ignore how in many ways all humans caused the COVID-19 catastrophe. What if it wasn’t one bad Chinese government’s fault, but the whole world’s fault for destroying habitats, mining too deeply, and creating the perfect conditions for natural viral spillovers? The lab-leak hypothesis will soon be in league with climate change denialism — a conspiracy that absolves humanity of its mistakes, and lets us live our lives as if nothing had ever happened.