Analysis & Comment

Opinion | We’ve Been Talking About the Lab-Leak Hypothesis All Wrong

Imagine yourself, if you can, in the months before the Covid-19 pandemic. Imagine being told then that a novel virus would emerge in China that would then spread around the world, infecting much of the global population, by some estimates killing more than 20 million people, and upending much of humanity’s social, political and economic life along the way.

Imagine you were then told that some experts believed that this new virus raised questions about the safety of certain kinds of scientific research, in which virologists collected rare viruses out in the wild, brought them to facilities in or near cities and in some cases tinkered with them there to help prevent or better respond to future pandemics.

Imagine that none of this was presented to you in partisan or nationalistic terms. Imagine that Donald Trump had not been president and that nobody used the term “bioweapon.” And then imagine that a question was put to you: What would the chances have to be that a lab accident was the origin of the pandemic to justify a broad and public conversation about the safety of that research?

What would you say? That a lab-leak theory would have to be proved definitively, beyond any shadow of a doubt, to prompt such a pointed conversation? Or that it would have to be simply likelier than not — a “preponderance of evidence” standard, as lawyers sometimes put it — to generate a global reckoning over lab safety procedures and the wisdom of doing research, called gain-of-function, that can make pathogens more dangerous?

That is the standard that has recently been reached by a group within the Department of Energy, which, according to reporting published Sunday in The Wall Street Journal, revised its own assessment and has now “concluded” — though with only “low confidence” — that the pandemic most likely began with a laboratory leak. The F.B.I. previously came to a similar conclusion, theirs with “moderate confidence.”

Four other government agencies and a national intelligence panel have reached the opposite perspective, that the pandemic had what is called a natural or “zoonotic” origin. Two other agencies commissioned reviews that reached an uncertain conclusion.

None of the follow-up stories about the new D.O.E. conclusion have offered any new evidence in support of it, which makes the news less like a reversal or revelation, justifying claims of vindication and bursts of recrimination, than one additional data point floating beside many others. However the leak may have played on your social media feed, it does not represent a new consensus but the opposite: a glaring reminder of the complexity of the known facts, with different narratives imposed by different factions trying to make sense of the same uncertain picture. When the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was asked about the report on CNN on Sunday, he could do little more than essentially shrug, promising that the administration was doing everything it could to investigate the origins of the pandemic but confessing in the same breath that opinion within U.S. intelligence was defined by uncertainty and disagreement.

This puts us in a strange epistemological limbo for such a mystery: No genuine proof seems to have arrived, one way or the other, three years on, in part because investigations have been largely stonewalled by China. That means that anyone contemplating the origins of the pandemic and its relevance for lab safety is operating to some degree from positions of ambiguity and probability.

But if you had been told, back in 2019, that this would be the state of knowledge in 2023, would it not seem extremely weird to you that there has not been a broad public conversation about the wisdom of potentially dangerous virological research in the meantime? That so much more oxygen had been eaten up by partisan theater than by public debate over the policy implications of such a possibility? And that the most significant set of reforms yet proposed — those issued a month ago by an expert panel from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and now being reviewed by the White House — were put together quietly, with little public attention paid to them beyond those already engaged in lab-safety debates?

The boundaries of mainstream discourse have suggested that we should resolve the matter of pandemic origins before moving on to the implications of the lab-leak hypothesis. But this has proved a paralyzing standard, and not just because so little definitive progress has been made on the central detective work. The question of how the deadliest pandemic in a century began is an undeniably consequential one. But so is the matter of what steps to take given that it remains to so many — including Anthony Fauci — an open question.

And personally, I think that if I were asked what the chances of an accidental outbreak would have to be to justify a loud and public reckoning over lab safety, I would put the number much lower than full proof. In fact, much lower even than “preponderance of evidence” — as low as 5 percent, perhaps, or 1 percent or less. Truthfully, I’m not sure that it would need to be any higher than zero, given that early in 2020, many of those scientists who would become the most stalwart critics of the lab-leak theory privately acknowledged that the origins of the pandemic were very much up for debate and that a laboratory leak was a perfectly plausible — perhaps even the most likely — explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan a few months earlier.

Since they were obtained by BuzzFeed via a FOIA lawsuit and published in a June 2021 article, a series of emails between many of the world’s top virologists sent on the last day of January and early days of February 2020 have formed one locus of lab-leak attention. In one, the evolutionary biologist and virologist Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research described the new virus as “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.” In another, Jeremy Farrar, then-director of the Wellcome Trust and the incoming chief scientist of the World Health Organization, summarized the perspectives of several other scientists, including Michael Farzan of Scripps, who had put his odds as “70:30” or “60:40” in favor of an “accidental release.” Farrar himself put the odds at “50:50.”

On the email chain, other scientists offered alternate views, favoring a natural explanation, and a conference call was arranged for Feb. 1. Less than a week later, the scientists began preparing a paper — published the following month as a letter in Nature Medicine and bearing the signatures of many of those on the call but not Dr. Fauci, who had helped arrange the call — that amounted to a consensus statement from the research establishment: The overwhelming likelihood was that the disease had evolved naturally; there was no evidence for a lab-leak origin. (“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the authors wrote emphatically.)

Farrar also co-authored a February statement published in The Lancet, suggesting that those pushing alternative theories were engaging with conspiracy theories that would only heighten prejudices against Chinese scientists. (Put aside, for a moment, that the predominant “zoonotic” narrative also relied on some racist tropes, in focusing on the unsanitary conditions of Wuhan’s “wet market,” and that any gain-of-function work going on in Wuhan was tied up in American funding and research partnerships.)

For some lab-leak theorists, the fact that so many prominent experts converged so rapidly on a declaration of natural origin so soon after expressing their doubts is proof of a “zoonotic conspiracy” — a coordinated effort to suppress discussion of the possible lab origins of SARS-CoV-2. For their part, many of those participants have described the conference call as an honest exchange of perspectives, and the “consensus” that emerged afterward the genuine result of scientific reflection and debate: Further consideration and conversation moved their collective dials away from “possible” to “unlikely” or even “vanishingly unlikely,” with better understanding of the viral genome resolving many of their initial questions about its features.

But to believe we should be talking much more about lab safety and gain-of-function research, you don’t need to see a conspiracy in those emails, or to believe that any of the conference-call participants were acting in bad faith, or that those extending the argument over the next few years were helping in anything like a cover-up. You don’t need to believe that the pandemic came out of a lab, when there is plenty of good reason to suspect it didn’t. You just need to take those scientists at their word: In the early days of the pandemic, knowing nearly as much as anyone in the world about the SARS-CoV-2 genome and the nature of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, they believed a lab leak was possible. That fact alone is pretty scary. After all, more than 20 million people have died.

Already this term, congressional Republicans have begun an investigation into the origins of the pandemic, with hearings reviving the heated investigation we’ve seen previewed in the Senate. It’s happening even as those National Science Advisory Board lab-safety recommendations sit quietly on the president’s desk — just the latest illustration of the way in which the debate over pandemic origins, rather than provoking conversations about lab safety, seems to have sidelined them.

All along, discussion of lab safety has continued, but it’s often been the under-the-radar or behind-the-scenes kind that Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London — one of the leaders, with Gregory Koblentz, of George Mason University’s Global Biolabs project — described to me as “invisible work.” At the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Angela Kane and others have proposed a “joint assessment mechanism” that would automatically start an investigation of the origins of a novel outbreak, for instance. The disgraced former crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried briefly managed to elevate lab safety into a significant preoccupation on Capitol Hill, but even then, it barely captured a sliver of public attention. What is perhaps most striking is that all this has happened when, according to the most recent reliable polling, more than half of Americans seem to believe that the virus did indeed emerge from a lab.

And yet the government does not even maintain a truly comprehensive database of where such experiments are taking place, let alone practice any rigorous oversight of them. Instead, there are different standards based on crude risk categorization and funding source and research facility. It’s a system that Koblentz, in an interview alongside Lentzos, described to me as “a total crazy patchwork quilt of rules” giving rise to a “big zone of uncertainty” about which labs are doing what kinds of work under whose oversight and with what level of security and precaution. Globally, the governance and oversight structure is even more patchwork. And to judge by the number of places doing those experiments, the risks may be growing in the wake of the pandemic, not shrinking.

That is the lead finding of a new Global Biolabs report, scheduled for publication next month, which builds on a worldwide database of the highest-security labs, called BSL-4, first published in 2021. At the time, Lentzos says, “there were lots of open questions,” and she and Koblentz were inundated with questions from journalists and policymakers: “So how many labs are there? Where do I get the list? And of course, there isn’t a list. There’s no official international list of these labs. There’s no international oversight body.” They found themselves referring journalists to Wikipedia, which they agreed was “pathetic.”

When they first compiled their database, in May of 2021, there were 59 BSL-4 labs operating or under construction throughout the world. In the update to be published next month, less than a year later, that number will have grown to 69, thanks mostly to announcements of new planned labs. The number only passed 10 total, globally, just before the turn of the millennium; it has more than doubled since 2010.

As Koblentz and Lentzos point out, not all of these labs are especially concerning from a safety perspective, nor is the fact that there are more of them being built. Many are quite small and perform relatively rote diagnostic work at hospitals or universities. Size and safety level are also not necessarily indicative of risks, they say: There isn’t anything necessarily worrying about a BSL-4 processing blood tests for Ebola, and you can do potentially dangerous work at BSL-3 and BSL-2 labs, as well, if you’re working with relatively benign pathogens that could grow significantly more transmissible or deadly in the lab.

Given the value of new knowledge about viruses, Koblentz and Lentzos are careful to describe themselves not as anti-science but pro-research, and even supportive of some potentially risky research, assuming the proper oversight is in place and the cost-benefit calculation was made thoughtfully. “But there are very clear risks that come out of these labs, and we’re building more globally and in places that don’t have as good oversight as there is in the places where these labs have traditionally been built,” Lentzos says. “The more pandemic research you do,” Koblentz adds, “it does potentially lead to more risks of an accident.”

How might we limit that potential? A single coherent national framework, for starters, in which all such research would be registered and subjected to oversight and approval based on careful evaluations of the risks and benefits. Ideally we’d also have global governance on the same model; automatic investigation of new outbreaks, with expectations of international cooperation, as Kane has called for; clearer guidance for “in-between” categories of laboratories sometimes called “BSL-3+”; new safety standards for research in the field, which is at present “almost completely unregulated,” Koblentz says; and a new culture of research practices, Lentzos suggests, emphasizing safety and transparency over risk-taking in the laboratory.

Koblentz and Lentzos are involved in several other ongoing lab-safety initiatives, including the Pathogens Project, convened by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, to consider oversight and potential new “red lines” for virological research going forward. But their new report includes a present-tense report card as well.

On biosafety, Koblentz says, “we’re in the best shape,” though he cautions that is only in relative terms — “I don’t want to imply that we’re in great shape.” On biosecurity, he says, it’s more a “mixed bag.” But when it comes to oversight on this sort of research, “barely anyone is doing anything,” he says. “There’s one or two countries that do well in the category and a lot of countries with literally zero oversight. They have nothing in place to monitor or oversee the research with potential pandemic pathogens or with gain-of-function research. So they wouldn’t even know what was going to happen if it was to happen.”

Do we need to know what started Covid to move on all this? On institute standards and oversight, at least at the national level, endeavoring to establish some shared framework internationally, as well? To agree that there are real risks of some cutting-edge virological research and that such decisions about that research should reckon with those risks?

I certainly hope not, because our understanding is evolving so slowly that it does not seem a real resolution will be coming anytime soon. Instead, the news cycle seems to churn up new coverage and commentary every few months, rarely advancing the story substantially but instead generating new rounds of recriminations. We are probably going to be stuck in that limbo for quite some time, perhaps forever, applying our own prejudices and biases to a story that doesn’t quite seem to hold together on either side.

In fact, in general, though lab-leak believers often describe the response of the scientific establishment in conspiratorial terms, quite a lot of newer “evidence” that has emerged since the pandemic’s first year has been either analyzed or leaked by U.S. government officials with their own agendas. And it is probably worth keeping in mind, assessing the Department of Energy news, that tensions between the United States and China are heating up, with American fighter jets shooting down at least one Chinese surveillance balloon of the kind that had been flying over our airspace for years. And China is now appearing to consider a move toward actively arming the Russian military, to name two recent examples.

Were it ever to be resolved definitively, the origins of the pandemic would have major geopolitical implications, of course — with the possibility that one of the world’s great powers was at least partly responsible for a once-in-a-century global trauma. But even unresolved, the lab-leak hypothesis offers great narrative potential on the world stage, with those inclined toward more conflict with Beijing also likelier to push an account of pandemic origins that pins blame on China. And yet, in the political sphere, those most sure of a lab origin aren’t exactly comfortable with the kinds of global governance structures that would probably help protect against future accidents in research abroad. And those committed to defending the principles of science may well be shepherding still riskier work into the world by treating calls for oversight as partisan fearmongering.

But it isn’t just simple partisanship that explains the strange state of lab-leak and lab-safety discourse, I don’t think, though those lines of conflict were drawn early and clearly in the United States. In the beginning, at least, Americans were really scared — with some clinging to expert guidance and others moving in the opposite direction. Some described reporting on pandemic origins, in The Times as elsewhere, as simply “stenography” for the National Institutes of Health. And whatever the intent, the definitive language in both the March 2020 Nature Medicine letter and The Lancet’s “conspiracy theories” commentary certainly appears to have suppressed debate.

The subject has also proved hard to broach, given that it is also inherently, eye-blurringly technical, on both sides: grant proposals and genome sequences, safety protocols and oversight boards. Researchers and experts quickly grew defensive and dismissive, giving the public an unmistakable sense of an almost unresolvable stalemate early on. More recently, while some researchers have embraced the National Science Advisory Board Recommendations, in other quarters there has been pushback to regulation and oversight.

And while talking about the risks of some virological research like this is tricky enough, talking about the possible benefits can be just as dicey. Proponents of cutting-edge gain-of-function research will often invoke the importance of deeper virological knowledge, an argument advanced recently in a commentary published in the Journal of Virology under the title “Virology Under the Microscope: A Call for Rational Discourse,” and in other places. (“A small but vocal group of individuals has seized upon these concerns — conflating legitimate questions about safely conducting virus-related research with uncertainties over the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” the authors wrote. “The result has fueled public confusion and, in many instances, ill-informed condemnation of virology.”)

But it’s not always so clear that particular research projects point so obviously to potential benefits that they justify their inherent risks. In fact, as Koblentz points out, the wave of public concern that ultimately resulted in an Obama-era moratorium on gain-of-function research began with questions about experiments designed to push the avian influenza H5N1 virus to become transmissible between mammals, to better prepare for that eventuality should it take place in nature. And yet the results of those experiments have not proved helpful in anticipating the recent bird flu developments, with H5N1 appearing to follow a different evolutionary path.

Even alongside partisanship and discourse policing, I don’t think complexity can explain all of our weirdness about pandemic origins. Half or more of the country may believe Covid-19 began with a lab leak, but even for those believers, it seems quite an uncomfortable possibility to really think about — to consider that all the death and disruption of the past few years could be a result of human accident and indeed recklessness and hubris. Or that such an accident might yet happen, absent significant new oversight. Or that an episode of such mass death and unprecedented global disruption could unfold and then recede without our ever definitively establishing how it began. To the extent we have really contemplated those possibilities, it has been largely backward looking and even symbolic — as though the actual question was a purely abstract one illustrating culture-war conflicts more than practical dilemmas. Wouldn’t it have been better to have responded to even the slim possibility of a lab-leak origin by saying, simply, “Let’s do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future”? Or at the very least, do what we could in terms of oversight and regulation so that next time we might actually know for sure?

“It’s a real loss, coming out of this whole pandemic,” Lentzos says. “Because it should have been this opportunity politically and publicly to focus on biorisks and how we can better address them. But that was, I think, all lost — and ironically, because it would’ve been a great example of the potential of a lab leak to cause a pandemic. Regardless of whether it did or not.”

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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