Saturday 19 June 2021
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Lab Leak Theory Tricky To Establish Scientifically

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The year was 2017. The scientific community was rejoicing over a finding. They now knew that the Sars virus had jumped from bats to civets to humans, which had killed around 800 people in the 2002-2004 outbreak. It had taken them 14 years… repeat, 14 years to find a “smoking gun”, a single population of horseshoe bats that harboured virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the one that jumped to humans. However, scientists have not been so successful at finding the source of Ebola outbreaks, which disappear as mysteriously as they appear, the most recent one being from 2013–2016. Science is tedious. Epidemics and pandemics do not leave a tell-tale trail that can easily lead us to the origins, It takes painstaking piecing together of real evidence to come to a conclusion, as is happening with the Chinese lab leak belief.

The origin of the Sars-CoV-2 epidemic might be as elusive, or not. That is for time to tell. It is disturbing, however, to note the urgency to zero in on the origin of the pandemic. A lot has been said in recent times since a letter by 14 scientists was published in Science. The five paragraphs of the letter raised, actually, only a single question and an observation on the original report on the study into the origin of the virus, published in May 2020.

The question was why there were only four pages in a 313-page report dedicated to exploring the origin of the virus from a laboratory, the remaining being dedicated to the natural origins of the virus. In reality, the ‘four pages versus 309 pages’ question has a logical explanation. As an analogy, assume that there has been a gas leak in a housing society and an investigative agency is asked to look into it. The report of the agency will have a page for a house that is suspected by the whole housing society to be behind the gas leak and 249 pages on the other houses. That is because an unbiased probe will give equal weightage to each of the 250 possibilities. By that logic, the 309 pages covered the possible hosts from a large market that sold animals in addition to some other possible sources.

The Wuhan lab in China was just one of the possible sources and four pages were dedicated to it. However, there exists cherry-picking of evidence to suit. In fact, there exists genomic evidence that a Sars-CoV-2 like virus originated in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus spp). It could then have spread to an unknown animal, which passed the pathogen to people. In this entire scheme of events, an animal origin seemed more likely than a lab leak, the investigation concluded. To come to an actual conclusion, it will take time. Such is science, tedious and time consuming.

Now, coming to the observation raised in the letter, the lead author of this letter, a microbiologist, David Relman, however, has stated that he did not say that he believed that this virus came from a laboratory. He rather felt that the authors of the WHO investigation were too decisive in their conclusions.

In words quoted from the letter, Relman opined that the investigators might have used a term like “appealing” for the natural-origins hypothesis instead of “highly likely”. Also, they could have admitted that they did not have enough evidence to rule out a lab leak. If this has been about semantics, then the results have been dramatic. Adding just the right amount of fuel to the smouldering embers of the lab-origin of the virus, a result that maybe even the authors never really expected or wanted.

Politicians, talk-show hosts, journalists and even some scientists are on the hunt for the proverbial “smoking gun” with “as close to a smoking gun as possible” being the phrase that is jumping out at us with alarming regularity, cherry-picking scientific evidence to back their stories up. However, while these make great headlines and talking points, they do little to bringing us closer to the truth.

All this public demand for a deeper investigation into the lab leak theory might backfire in the end because it appears more like an allegation, according to Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. In such a scenario, the Chinese scientists and officials will be less likely to share information.

Relevant reading

Fingers pointed at the US funding link to this story (as can be seen here) might increase scrutiny to US grants for research conducted in China, leading to increasing the hurdles to the discovery of the source of this pandemic, in his opinion.

US intelligence reports endorse what several investigators had found earlier

I would like to conclude with this anecdote. A friend, during a heated debate about the origin of the virus, asked me casually, “How would finding the origin of the virus change the course of finding a cure for this epidemic?” She was disappointed when I answered, “Nothing”.

While a geopolitical rift is the last thing we need to tackle the problem at hand at this moment, politicians and statesmen must deal with the challenge since the lab leak theory is plausible at the least. Meanwhile, scientists need to prepare for the next wave, the next pandemic, and the administrations of all countries must fix the faultlines in our healthcare systems that this pandemic has exposed and learn from one another.

Chaitali Bhattacharjee
PhD in molecular biology, former Young Scientist, working in the life science and healthcare industry since 2007
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