Possibility Isn’t Proof: Did SARS-CoV-2 escape from a Chinese lab?

Source:Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division (Central Intelligence Agency)

This week I’ve seen a lot of chatter and innuendo suggesting, or flat-out accusing, that SARS-CoV-2 came from a Chinese laboratory.

Before you spread these rumors, consider these things.

First, keep clear in your mind the difference between two different accusations:

  1. That China (or insert your favorite enemy here) created or genetically engineered this new virus for use as a bioweapon

#1 should leave evidence in the genetic sequence of the virus. As I blogged previously, experts say there is no such evidence in the genome of SARS-CoV-2. So as far as I am concerned, #1 is false. People say it, share it, believe it for the same reason all conspiracy theories find traction: people are afraid, and pinning blame on powerful dark forces gives a sense of control.

So let’s talk about #2.

Fact: there is a biosafety level 4 (highest level) virology research lab in Wuhan. Fact: this facility is well-known for its research on coronaviruses. Fact: some of the research there involves going into caves and other places where wild bats live, collecting bat guano, and studying viruses found in bats. The lab would definitely have both live and frozen specimens of a variety of coronaviruses.

BSL-4 laboratories are explicitly designed to isolate the most dangerous microorganisms known — agents that are deadly, and have no vaccine or treatment. Is it possible that an accident could occur, and a worker could be exposed? Of course. Is it possible that an employee intentionally breached protocol for some reason, and brought a virus into the community? Of course it is possible.

But is there evidence of this, or mere coincidence? For myself, I don’t spread rumors without evidence.

Apparently not everyone is like me. Here’s what happened this week.

On Tuesday, American’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, weighed in on the speculation that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not natural. The general’s exact quote was,

“At this point, it’s inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural {origin}.”

Two major news organizations both covered the story. In the body of their articles, both reported the same basic information. But they chose very different emphases.

Headline A: U.S. Military Says Coronavirus Likely Occurred Naturally but Not Certain

Headline B: Sources believe coronavirus originated in Wuhan lab as part of China’s efforts to compete with US

I would add that in article B, the “sources” who “believe” the virus came from the Wuhan lab are unnamed.

I’m not interested in the agenda behind this spin. I’m interested in the scientific facts of how this new zoonotic (animal) virus found its way from bats into the people of Wuhan. There are countless plausible ways.

An accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is one possibility. Evidence is lacking.

An intermediate animal host such as pangolin at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is another. Evidence is admittedly weak. Although the first recognized COVID-19 disease cluster was centered on the market, the first human cases (probably in November, as first official case was Dec. 1) might have brought the virus into the market rather than the other way around.

The list of other possible routes is nearly infinite. Maybe it was some poor kid playing in the dirt outside a bat cave. A wealthy Wuhan citizen doing something weird with a bat for traditional Chinese medicine. Wildlife or a pig slaughtered in somebody’s back yard.

The key point is, we may never know for sure. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, but don’t let that drive you to a false certainty. In the absence of proof, carefully examine your own worldview, what biases you have, that encourage you to “believe” one possible truth over another.

In the end, I’d like to emphasize that we have long expected a virus like this to emerge naturally. (Even Hollywood knew: see the movie Contagion.) We have previous examples: see SARS-CoV-1, and MERS, zoonotic coronaviruses that jumped into humans naturally. And I can guarantee that another virus, and another, and another, will make this leap on their own without any laboratories or conspiracies in the future.

Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated scientist, novelist, journalist, and educator. She blogs about coronavirus at AmyRogers.com

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