As of now, none of us know whether the SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19 virus, was accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, or jumped on to humans "zoonotically" from some animal. But the hypothesis that it did escape a lab, which was earlier confined to the margins of opinion, has now gone mainstream. Last week, President Biden announced a further investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said in a statement that the majority of the US intelligence community believed there was insufficient evidence to give a clear-cut verdict, but there were elements in the intelligence community who believed that it could be a laboratory accident. So, Biden has now tasked the intelligence community and the national labs to give him a more detailed report within 90 days, which "could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion". This is a dangerous conjuncture. If, indeed, the lab escape hypothesis can be confirmed, its political consequences for China's relations with the world would be devastating. But that is not a likely scenario, as China is unlikely to acknowledge any accidental leak theory and without its cooperation, it would be near impossible to validate it. In many ways, the trigger for the current speculation, if we can call it that at this stage, arises from the remarks made by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on March 30 following the China-WHO investigation earlier this year. The WHO report had termed the laboratory origin of the pandemic "to be extremely unlikely". Conversely, it had said that the zoonotic origin theory—that the virus jumped from animals to humans—was most likely. But the team had provided little detail as to how exactly that happened. More significantly, according to Dr Tedros, the team, "expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data." He went on to say that "I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions." Coming from someone who was criticised for being soft on China, the statement spoke for itself. On the same day, the US and 13 other countries, including Japan, the UK, Canada, Denmark, and Norway issued a joint statement criticising the WHO-China study because it lacked access to "complete original data and samples". And said there was need for a follow up that was a "transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic." The EU issued a parallel statement calling for the China-WHO report a "helpful first step" but one that required the WHO to lead a follow up study with "timely access to all relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal, and environmental data available." Had the Chinese nothing to hide, they could have gone along with this suggestion. But as of now, only the wolf warriors are talking. In a recent official press briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao LIjian riposted that if the US wanted a transparent investigation, "it should open its Fort Detrick and biolabs overseas to the rest of the world". He said that, "clues, reports, and researches" indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic "was spotted in various places around the world in the second half of 2019." In other words, far from being the place where the virus originated, China was a victim of the spread of the virus. The Chinese have been pushing the idea that the virus may have come from elsewhere for some time now, at times insinuating that it came with the US delegation to the 7th World Army Games that took place in Wuhan in October 2019. In fact, the China-WHO report looked into this hypothesis but, as an annex of the report noted, "nothing resembling COVID-19 had been seen" at the clinics servicing those games. Given this situation, it is unlikely that any smoking gun will emerge. Part of the problem originated when the Trump administration made use of the virus to attack China in a bid to deflect attention from its own mishandling of the pandemic back home. According to a report, the State Department under Pompeo had launched its own secret investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. This was shut down by the Biden team after reviewing its report. So, Biden's current move is more likely motivated by a desire not to be outflanked on the issue by Trump rather than anything else. In fact, on the eve of Biden's inaugural, Pompeo's State Department put out a fact sheet based on declassified intelligence which pointed to three issues deserving scrutiny: First was that of illnesses inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in the autumn of 2019; second, the nature of the research at the WIV, including "gain of function" studies to engineer dangerous viruses for study; third, secret military activity in WIV, which had been doing classified research for the PLA. In February 2020, Chinese virologist Shi Zengli, who works at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and is known as the "bat lady" for her work in showing how bats harbour coronavirus, angrily denied that her lab was the source of the COVID-19 virus. The WIV, which has a huge library of pathogens and viruses were the first to identify the coronavirus to be the cause of the pandemic. But the lab's location in Wuhan naturally raised questions as to whether the virus could have somehow escaped and infected the population in the city. In May 2020, the Washington Post's fact check team declared that "the balance of scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature." The China-WHO team's conclusion too, was that the lab escape theory was the least likely. Through 2020, the notion of a lab escape was discounted, in part as a reaction to the Trump administration's advocacy of it. Yet, proof that the virus had arrived "zoonotically" was also not forthcoming. But from 2020 itself, there had been a great deal of credible writing on the possible lab origins of the virus. In early May this year, an essay by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made a masterly summary of the evidence that provided substantial wind to the lab origin theory again. His conclusion was that the complicity for what happened may not be confined just to the Chinese authorities, but the United States as well. Wade said that neither the Chinese nor the US "is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi's coronavirus research was funded by the US National Institutes of Health." He blamed the mainstream media for ignoring the issue and said that this may have been the result of their disdain for Trump. He has raised the issue of "gain of function" research, which is routinely conducted in the US, as well as China and Europe. Here, labs produce viruses more dangerous than the ones found in nature, so that they can predict and prevent future problems. A week after Wade's article, speaking before the Congress, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci flatly denied that the NIH had ever funded gain of function research in the WIV. In fact, the Obama administration had banned such research in the US in 2014. But this does not address the question as to whether the funding could have been indirectly provided through an NGO called the EchoHealth Alliance. On May 14, a group of top epidemiologists and biologists published a letter in the journal Science, saying that there was need for a new investigation because "theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable." It said that the possibility of a lab accident had been somewhat cursorily treated in the WHO-China report. The key evidence on whether the virus was zoonotic in origin, or whether it escaped from a lab, is in China. But Beijing is unlikely to accept any scenario that suggests that there was a leak from its labs. The best we can hope for is that if, indeed, there was a problem, the Chinese have dealt with it and have adopted protocols to prevent any recurrence. An added bonus would be if scientists around the world got together and banned the "gain of function" research. From the political point of view, with the ongoing American inquiry, the debate will not have quick closure and we could see the additional US pressure on China to cooperate. But if, by chance, some clinching evidence could be found, it would have staggering consequences.
This article was first published on ORF.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and columnist on these issues. Views expressed are personal.