Why Is The COVID Lab Leak Theory Suddenly Gaining So Much Attention?

A thorough investigation into the origins of the pandemic is needed. Image credit: angellodeco/Shutterstock.com

Earlier this week, President Biden tasked US intelligence officials with determining once and for all how the COVID-19 pandemic began. More specifically, he has requested clarification on whether the virus emerged as a result of zoonotic spillover – meaning it jumped from an animal host into the human population – or as a consequence of a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out that the scientific community is overwhelmingly in favor of the zoonotic spillover theory, and there is no actual evidence to suggest a lab leak. However, until a thorough investigation is conducted, the possibility of the virus having been created in a laboratory can’t be ruled out.

Could The Virus Have Escaped From A Laboratory?

Outside of social media, no one is actually saying that the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from a laboratory. Back in May 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that such a scenario was “extremely unlikely,” and that the pathogen most probably jumped from bats to humans, with the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan being the point of the first transmission.

Even as the Biden administration called for an investigation into the matter, the President’s chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci explained that "the historical basis for pandemics evolving naturally from an animal reservoir is extremely strong. And it's for that reason that we felt that something similar like this has a much higher likelihood.”

Indeed, a huge number of viruses – from HIV and Zika to Ebola and avian flu – have found their way into the human population via an animal host, while the idea of a pathogen escaping from a laboratory is something that is yet to occur outside of science fiction.

And yet, without a full investigation into the pandemic’s origins, we can’t eliminate the possibility of such an event. After all, there is some basis for this claim, and a number of concerns have yet to be addressed. For example, two laboratories close to the Huanan Seafood Market are known to have been conducting research on bat coronaviruses prior to the outbreak. Significantly, three researchers working at one of these facilities were hospitalized with a mystery illness that produced COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, before the supposed outbreak of the virus.

Therefore, while Fauci and other medical experts continue to see zoological spillover as the most likely cause of the pandemic, he did admit this week that “no one knows [how it started], not even I, 100% at this point, which is the reason why we are in favor of further investigation."

Why Is This Being Talked About Now?

The timing of Biden’s announcement is not based on any new evidence or developments that might point towards a possible laboratory leak. In fact, the evidence for such an event remains as scarce now as it was at the start of the pandemic. However, there does appear to be a greater acceptance of the fact that we still haven’t investigated the outbreak thoroughly enough, which is why we shouldn’t be ruling anything out.

For instance, on May 14, a group of scientists published a letter in the journal Science calling for a detailed review of the origins of the virus. In it, they claim that the original WHO report was not comprehensive enough in its scope, and only very briefly addressed the possibility of a lab leak before dismissing it.

“Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident,” they wrote. It’s important to mention that the authors are not trying to claim that the virus escaped from a lab, but are merely calling for an investigation to be conducted so that we can say for sure that this did not happen.

“Greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” they say.

Naturally, the sudden recognition of the fact that we still don’t know how the pandemic started has led to sensationalist claims by certain media outlets and individuals on social media, although the reality is that there is still no evidence to support the idea that the virus escaped from a laboratory.


 This Week in IFLScience

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