What intelligence agencies are reviewing
Biden ordered a review of what the White House said was an initial finding leading to “two likely scenarios,” an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House statement says two agencies in the 18-member intelligence community lean toward the hypothesis of a transmission in nature; another agency leans toward a lab leak.
One document drawing new attention is a State Department fact sheet published in the last days of Trump’s administration. The memo notes that the U.S. believes three researchers at a Wuhan, China, lab sought medical treatment for a respiratory illness in November 2019. However, the report is not conclusive: The origin and severity of the staffers’ illness is not known — and most people in China regularly go to hospitals, not primary-care physicians, for routine care.
The memo also pointed to “gain of function” studies — which in theory could enhance the lethality or transmissibility of a virus — allegedly done at the Wuhan lab with U.S. backing. However, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has since adamantly denied that the U.S. supported any “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses in Wuhan.
China’s lack of transparency
The White House statement criticized China for a lack of transparency, echoing previous criticisms by Democrats and Republicans. “The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” the White House said.
The Associated Press has reported on China’s interference in the World Health Organization’s probes of the virus and its fanning of conspiracy theories online. China has also forced journalists to leave the country in recent years and silenced or jailed whistleblowers from Wuhan and elsewhere.
The lack of transparency in China is a significant and familiar challenge. But that does not in itself signal that something in particular is being hidden.
What scientists believe
The most compelling argument for investigating the possibility of a lab leak is not any new hard evidence, but rather the fact that another pathway for virus spread has not been 100% confirmed.
“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” said Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada. He pointed to the fact that spillover events – when viruses jump from animals to humans – are common in nature, and that scientists already know of two similar beta coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused epidemics when humans were infected, SARS1 and MERS.
However, the case is not completely closed. “There are probabilities, and there are possibilities,” said Banerjee. “Because nobody has identified a virus that’s 100% identical to SARS-CoV-2 in any animal, there is still room for researchers to ask about other possibilities.”
How long it will take to confirm
Confirming with 100% certainty the origin of a virus is often not fast, easy, or always even possible.
For example, scientists never confirmed the origin of smallpox before the disease was eradicated through a global vaccination program.
In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – a disease caused by a beta coronavirus, like the current coronavirus – researchers first identified the virus in February 2003. Later that year, scientists discovered the likely intermediary hosts: Himalayan palm civets found at live-animal markets in Guangdong, China. But it wasn’t until 2017 that researchers traced the likely original source of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.
The importance of understanding the origin of the virus
From a scientific perspective, researchers are always keen to better understand how diseases evolve. From a public health perspective, if a virus has transitioned to being spread mostly by human-to-human contact, discovering its origins is not as essential to strategies for containing the disease.
“Questions of origins and questions of disease control are not the same thing once human-to-human transmission has become common,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in environment and public health at Villanova University.