Uncovering the origins of the virus that sparked a pandemic
June 10, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.
Compression ratio: 26.2%. 3 min read.
Unlocking the mysteries of the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 and launched a global pandemic in March 2020, has become one of the most burning questions in the scientific community. But the effort, like so many other coronavirus-related issues, has become hotly contested, fraught with implications for international relations and, in the United States at least, laced with conspiracy theories and politically motivated posturing.
(CNN)Unlocking the mysteries of the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 and launched a global pandemic in March 2020, has become one of the most burning questions in the scientific community.
The first, and the one that was accepted as the likely story for a long time, is that the virus came from nature, jumping from its natural reservoir in some type of bat, through a still-unknown intermediary animal and into humans (possibly at or near a "wet market" in Wuhan, China), among whom it then spread like wildfire.
The second theory is that it leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, where there are, in fact, laboratories that study and manipulate coronaviruses very similar to SARS-CoV-2.
This story would not be complete without mention of two pieces of federal intelligence: a US State Department Fact sheet, published on January 15, 2021, in the last week of the Trump administration, that noted the federal government believed that there were sick researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology before the first clusters of Covid-19 cases were identified; and a classified May 2020 report from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory acknowledging that the lab-leak theory was a possibility.
He said the third piece of evidence is that all of the mechanisms that bring together man and bat -- "the wildlife trade, the incredible movement of bats and other natural virus reservoirs from their natural habitats to places where people work and live and shop" -- have been enhanced.
"The problem with that fourth form of evidence is it's not clear that those telltale signs of virus arose after the outbreak began, or before," he said.
"The very questions the Wuhan lab was addressing are the same questions that many scientists around the world have been addressing, which are critically important to understanding the nature of our relationship with these emerging viruses that might cause great harm.
Relman notes that the Chinese have not acknowledged having worked on viruses that look like SARS-CoV-2.
To confirm the natural spillover theory, Relman said solid, verifiable evidence is needed "of exactly where that first encounter took place.
To confirm the lab-leak theory, Relman said, what's needed is "evidence that the encounter took place in a laboratory, perhaps during the course of an experiment where, perhaps, the virus was being cultivated and they didn't realize that they had SARS CoV-2 . . .
[or] evidence that a sample they never did sequence, but put into culture, in fact had SARS CoV-2, for example," he said, adding that "there are thousands of samples" the lab hasn't carefully sequenced yet.
WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said on CNN last week that the agency will continue its investigation into the virus' origin beyond its first fact-finding mission.
If we had the true parents -- the direct, immediate ancestors of this virus -- and we knew where they had first arisen, we would have the answer to where exactly this virus did its final evolution -- in nature or in a laboratory," Relman said.
"It's not close enough to say it's the exact virus that gave rise to this one, in a simple evolutionary step," Relman said.
Says Relman: "We need to all accept the possibility that we may never arrive at a definite answer about where the virus and the disease first arose. " But, he said after his letter, "My impression is that there's a growing willingness to both look at this question in a dispassionate objective way, but also to accept that there truly are multiple possibilities here. "