A string of about 30,000 genetic letters was all it took to start the nightmare of covid-19, which is expected to kill more than 20 million people. The origins of this story have been hotly debated. Many believe that the emergence of covid-19 was a zoonosis—a spillover from wild animals, as so many new pathogens, are because it resembles a group of coronaviruses found in bats.
Others have cited the enthusiastic coronavirus engineering that is taking place in laboratories around the world, particularly in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first identified. A team of scientists assembled by the World Health Organization () to visit Wuhan in February 2021 stated that a laboratory leak was extremely unlikely. This conclusion was later challenged by the who’s who, who stated that ruling out this theory was premature.
Two recent publications appear to have strengthened the case for a natural origin linked to Wuhan’s “wet market.” These markets sell live animals, often in deplorable conditions, and are known to be breeding grounds for new pathogens that spread from animal to human. Early cases of covid-19 were concentrated in this market. However, critics argue that there are so many missing data points from the epidemic’s early days that this portrait may be inaccurate.
The opposing theory of a laboratory leak is not implausible. Accidental virus escape from labs is more common than many people realize. This is how the 1977 flu epidemic is thought to have started. However, an escaped virus does not imply that it was engineered. The unengineered variety can also be found in virology labs.
Wuhan research, for example, suggests so many ways for a virus to spread. A researcher on a field trip could have picked it up in the wild and then returned to Wuhan, where it could have infected others. Or perhaps someone in the laboratory became infected with a virus collected from the wild. Some argue that sars-cov-2 was created in a laboratory from other viruses that were already available and then leaked out.
An analysis from an unlikely source enters the fray. Alex Washburne is a mathematical biologist who runs Selva, a microbiome science startup based in New York. He is an outsider, despite having previously worked on virological modeling as a researcher at Montana State University. Dr. Washburne worked with two other scientists on this study.
Any generally accepted conclusion that the virus was genetically engineered would have significant political and scientific consequences. It would cast a new light on the Chinese government’s behavior during the outbreak’s early days, particularly its reluctance to share epidemiological data from those days.
It would also raise questions about who knew what, when, and how much about the supposedly unintentional escape of an engineered virus. For the time being, this is the first draft of science and should be treated as such. However, the examiners are already at work.