The Evolving Debate on COVID-19 Origin and Its Missing Component

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On July 22, in the latest twist in the evolving debate on COVID origin, Chinese officials said that they were shocked and offended by a World Health Organization proposal to further investigate whether the COVID 19 pandemic emerged from a lab in Wuhan. Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the Chinese Health Commission , said at a news conference in Beijing that he was ‘extremely shocked’ at the WHO ‘s plan to renew attention on the possibility that the virus had leaked from a Wuhan lab. In fact he went to the extent of stating, “ I could feel that this plan revealed a lack of respect for common sense and an arrogant attitude towards science.”

The early stage of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by serious concerns of the possibility of this being caused by a bio-lab leak in Wuhan, the place where the pandemic outbreak is believed to have occurred first. In the given situation of the world and its rivalries, it was not a surprise that this soon took the form of China-bashing, entirely ignoring the fact that the project to which the lab-leak was being funded by a leading USA government agency.

The USA government agency sub-contracted it to a New York based organization which transferred the funds to the Wuhan based lab. Both at the level of contracting and sub-contracting very powerful US scientists and officials were involved. Previous warnings of safety risks in the context of such research had been received and were ignored by the funding agencies at both levels.

Hence to the extent that the lab-leak theory of COVD-19 origin was valid, the blame was to be shared equally by the USA and China, and not by China alone. This aspect was entirely ignored by those who used the new situation to indulge in their favorite game of China-bashing.

The fuller facts of the situation were known to many of the senior experts particularly virologists but they also kept quiet about the funding aspect, although they were being increasingly approached by media-persons for more details on this issue.

On the other hand, several very influential scientists got together to prepare and issue statements which questioned and negated the entire lab-leak theory in strong terms. Although the scientific basis of these statements was in fact highly questionable, the fact that influential scientists had lent their names to these statements and that these had been published in journals of high credibility led to a rapid erosion of the theory of lab-leak in explaining COVID-19 origin. The initial phase of this theory was thus rather short-lived.

Then emerged the big media story of the USA funding of controversial Wuhan research, which was presented as a somewhat bombshell kind of news, even though the main facts of this funding, which had continued for a fairly long time, were well-known to senior virologists and related experts.

When these facts came to the notice of many more people, of course there was much surprise and speculation. However a side-effect was that the enthusiasm of China-bashers for this subject was further reduced. If the Chinese research which supposedly started it all was funded by the USA, then its potential value in terms of giving a bad name to China wasn’t really very high, they realized, as they lapsed into sullen silence.

The decline of the lab-leak theory was of course accompanied by the rise of the natural transmission theory, most likely in the form of transmission of bat corona viruses to human beings via an intermediary. This theory held ground for some time with growing strength. But soon some doubts started surfacing. A lot of time had passed and the intermediary involved had not been traced. Other expected confirmations were not occurring.

Then belated realization came that the statements which had debunked the lab-leak theory in the first place were organized to a significant extent by powerful scientists-officials themselves involved in the funding of the controversial Wuhan research. Even at a wider level, some of these very powerful virologists and related experts, who had gone around assuring the world that lab-leaks were not relevant in this context, were found to be themselves being big beneficiaries of huge funding for  similar type of  controversial, high-risk research concerning novel potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs).

This led to renewed interest again in the lab-leak theory, this time in a more balanced way and less from the perspective of China-bashing. As numerous aspects including the details of the precise research being conducted in Wuhan were examined as also aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of a lab-leak was further strengthened, and such influential persons as the new USA President and the WHO chief stated very recently, in their own ways and in different contexts, that this possibility of a lab-leak will be further investigated. This is where the  debate stands today.

Of course some other theories have also been advanced, but the main debate has centered around the above mentioned two possibilities.

While a lot has been written about this, a missing dimension which has not received adequate attention, despite its obvious importance , is that if the possibility of a lab-leak theory including the release of a genetically engineered virus is accepted, then what would be the difference of COVID-19 response in terms of its treatment and vaccine, in terms of predicting its trajectory, durability, variants, spread, capacity to harm human beings or other forms of life etc. In other words, what people would really like to know is how the response differs , or needs to differ, depending on whether natural transmission or lab leak is involved. Is a different response needed in two contexts, how different, what are the important implications at policy level? If answers to such questions in completely unbiased form, based in science ,can be obtained soon, then this will be very useful.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.

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