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Why fully investigating COVID-19's origins still matters

Why fully investigating COVID-19's origins still matters
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As terrible as COVID-19 has been, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that we’ll face another pandemic unless we identify how this crisis began and fix our biggest shortcomings. Yet, well more than a year after the outbreak, we still lack a credible, comprehensive international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. That should frighten everyone.

Although global media reports have repeatedly referenced a “World Health Organization investigation” into COVID-19 origins, it may surprise many people to learn that this review process was not carried out by the WHO and was not, by the admission of its leader, even an investigation. Instead, an independent committee of experts organized by the WHO, with a very limited mandate, spent only two weeks on the ground in Wuhan, China, engaging in a highly curated, restricted study tour during which they were denied access to basic essential information. 

On the day this international committee and its Chinese counterparts released their highly incomplete joint report — which significantly echoed the Chinese government's position on COVID-19 origins — WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom released a statement highlighting the difficulties the international experts experienced accessing raw data and rejected the joint study team’s recommendation to restrict the scope of the examination and to conduct no further examination of a lab-leak hypothesis for the pandemic's origin.  

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Dr. Tedros wisely recognized that understanding how the pandemic began matters.

There’s a reason why no stone is left unturned investigating plane crashes. Even though it’s good to promote airline safety in general, finding the specific problem that caused a particular crash allows us to address what tragedy has shown us to be an imminent threat. Until we identify and fix that problem, other planes remain at risk.

The same is true with understanding the origins of COVID-19. There are many things we should do to prevent future pandemics, but we can’t do everything at once. Figuring out how this particular crisis began — like understanding why a particular plane crashed — is essential to prioritizing our next steps.

No evidence has so far been identified categorically proving the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus spread through zoonotic means — in other words, jumped from a bat through a series of intermediate animal hosts in the wild before infecting humans. But imagine what would happen if scientists should prove that’s how the pandemic began: Ecologists and virologists who have long warned that our assault on nature is creating monumental risks to our species and planet would get a big boost; political support and funding for research, surveillance and conservation likely would increase. We’d step up efforts to better regulate wet markets and wild animal trade, too.

Now imagine how differently things would play out if we discover COVID-19 stems from an accidental lab incident amplified by a coverup — another theory that has not been categorically proven at this point. Should that hypothesis be validated, we’d be forced to urgently ask extremely uncomfortable questions about ongoing dangerous activities in Chinese laboratories and the threat that China’s aggressive science and lack of transparency pose to the world. We’d reconsider the proliferation of under-regulated, high-risk virology institutes across the globe and far more seriously consider whether research that involves making dangerous pathogens even more dangerous — the type of research that reportedly was being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — is worth the risk.  

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Given these stakes, and the massive national and geopolitical implications for China, it’s easy to guess why the Chinese government has worked tirelessly to prevent any serious investigation into a possible lab incident and, instead, tried to focus attention on other theories about how the pandemic began.  

Over the past year, Chinese authorities have destroyed biological sampleshidden essential laboratory recordsimprisoned citizen journalists asking tough questions about the Wuhan virology institutes, and banned Chinese experts from publishing COVID-19 research papers or making public statements about pandemic origins without governmental approval.

Why might the Chinese government be more partial to the possibility the pandemic sprang from nature rather than leaked from a lab? For the same reason there’s a big difference in perception between getting cancer from sun exposure and getting it from Chernobyl. Although no one could blame China for a natural occurrence, people around the world and in China would be enraged if it were discovered that COVID-19 stemmed from an accidental lab leak and coverup. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grip on power could be threatened.

It's harder to understand why the international expert committee recommended no further examination of the lab incident hypothesis. Perhaps some of its members felt that even limited collaboration with their Chinese counterparts, made possible through a restricted process, was better than none at all.

But any effort to prevent a full investigation into all pandemic-origin hypotheses with unrestricted access to all relevant records, samples and personnel in China and beyond should be recognized for what it is — a threat to all of us and to future generations. Everyone on Earth is a stakeholder in getting to the bottom of how this terrible crisis began and our many other ensuing failures as essential first steps towards addressing our greatest vulnerabilities.

Luckily, the assertions of WHO’s director general that all origin hypotheses, including a possible lab incident, must be fully investigated and that “we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do,” have created preliminary grounds for hope. Having WHO’s director general fully support a comprehensive investigation into all origin hypotheses should bury, once and for all, the absurd notion that some COVID-19 origin hypotheses can be easily or summarily dismissed. The onus is now on our leaders and the international community to translate these words into the full investigation we so desperately need. 

Tedros stated that he will potentially invite experts better able to investigate the lab leak hypothesis to join the process. The critical attitude of the Chinese government toward this suggestion, paired with its ability to veto any investigators from joining the team or entering China, may make this difficult if not impossible. If China chooses to stand in the way of better utilizing the existing process, other options could include the WHO and China negotiating new terms for a full investigation, having countries pass a resolution in the World Health Assembly (the WHO’s governing authority) calling for a comprehensive international scientific and forensic investigation or, if that’s not possible, establishing a parallel investigation bringing together interested states, experts and others dedicated to the greatest possible understanding of pandemic origins — with or without Chinese participation.

The stakes for pushing this kind of full investigation are clearly high. But the consequences of failing to do all we can to understand how this terrible pandemic began would, over time, prove far greater. 

Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, and founder and chair of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on facilitating global collective-action. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019). He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.