COVID-19 lab leak theory cannot be ruled out, say leading scientists

The origin of the new coronavirus remains unclear and the theory that it originated from a laboratory leak needs to be taken seriously until a rigorous data-driven study proves it wrong, a group of leading scientists said.

The new coronavirus, which emerged in China in late 2019, has killed 3.34 million people, cost the world trillions of dollars and disrupted the normal lives of billions of people.

The 18 scientists said, “Further investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic.” Those scientists include Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at Cambridge University, and Jesse Bloom, who studies virus evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

In a letter to Science magazine, David Relman, a professor of microbiology at Stanford University, said, “Both the theory of accidental laboratory leaks and zoonotic spillover remain viable.”

The letter’s authors said the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origin of the virus did not “balance” the theory that the virus could have come from a laboratory incident.

A WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said in its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, that the virus may have been transmitted to humans from a bat by another animal and that a laboratory leak was “a highly unlikely cause.”

But there are many different ideas about the origin of the virus, including a range of conspiracy theories.

“Until we have enough data, we have to take seriously the hypotheses about natural and laboratory spills,” the scientists said. He added that an intellectually rigorous and fair investigation is needed.

“In a period of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists and citizens who shared important information with the world about the spread of the virus usually at great personal cost during the early stages of the pandemic.”