Even if we never learn whether COVID-19 escaped from a lab or jumped to humans from animals, the public is entitled to a closer look at what’s going on in virology labs.
Some scientists worry that laboratory scientists are getting too little oversight on projects that could potentially start pandemics. Others worry about the global proliferation of labs that work with dangerous viruses and other pathogens.
The journal Nature accused politicians and the media of stirring up a “divisive” argument over the origins of the pandemic, but it’s only reasonable to want an explanation for some curious facts. The virus that has killed 3.5 million people so far and upended the lives of billions of others seems to have its closest relative in horseshoe bats, yet there are no horseshoe bat colonies close to Wuhan, China, where the pandemic was first identified. Wuhan does, however, host a lab holding the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses.
A World Health Organization team sent to investigate came back with little in the way of plausible explanations for SARS-CoV-2. Nor are the explanations mutually exclusive — the virus could be a naturally occurring bat virus collected by a scientist and placed in a lab from which it later escaped. There’s no convincing evidence that this virus has been genetically manipulated, but it’s well known that scientists have manipulated other viruses to make them more dangerous.
Biologist Richard Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University, walked me through a history of biodefense laboratory research going back to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed in its wake. Because Congress was targeted in those attacks, the incident spurred the U.S. government’s interest in researching germ warfare defenses. But things took a strange twist: While it was commonly assumed the attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists, a multi-year investigation pointed back to an American biodefense researcher. Investigators linked the attacks to Bruce Ivins, a virologist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, though he killed himself before he could be tried. Perhaps increasing controls over biodefense research would have been a more rational response than ramping up funding.
Ebright told me that back in 2003, the scientific community started to voice concerns over the realization that emerging genetic technology might, in principle, allow people to alter viruses to make them deadlier or more transmissible. And indeed, such experiments started happening — funded by the National Institutes of Health and done in the name of defense, or simply to better understand viruses as a line of basic research.
A project in 2005 led to the re-creation of the deadly 1918 pandemic flu virus — something that helped scientists understand why that pandemic struck so many young, healthy people, but also led to concerns over the risk of a lab leak.
Another project in 2011 altered a bird flu virus so it could spread between mammals. This was a particularly scary creation because bird flu can occasionally jump from birds to humans, killing about 60% of those infected. A version of this that could travel from human to human would be devastating. Debate continued for years over whether the benefits of this kind of research could possibly justify the grave risk, though the research was scheduled to resume in 2019.
There’s also U.S. funding for virus surveillance, which carries its own risks. Researchers go out and collect viruses, grow them in their labs, and use them in experiments. Ebright considers this analogous to the space virus collection in “The Andromeda Strain,” except that now we know that plenty of exotic viruses exist right here on Earth.
Scientists have, more recently, been creating genetically altered coronaviruses. That research has been done as a collaboration between U.S. labs and the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. In one controversial project, researchers took bat coronaviruses and introduced changes to see if they could induce greater pandemic potential. That research was published in 2015 in Nature Medicine.
More experiments followed, in which the spike gene of one coronavirus was fused to the backbone of another, creating new viruses increasingly adept at infecting human cells. “And so this is, of course, a cookbook for constructing a virus of extremely high pandemic potential,” says Ebright.
Under Obama, there was a “pause” on funding for gain-of-function research in 2014 and calls for a review of existing research, which was carried out through the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Under Trump, there was a new set of controls, which required reviews through the NIH, but Ebright said only two projects were ever reviewed. In practice, this meant weaker protections were in place.
Ebright suggests that OSTP or another independent entity should be responsible for oversight, rather than agencies that do research or fund it.
Purdue University virologist David Sanders told me he agrees with Ebright’s concerns, but he thinks the danger lies less in these genetic manipulation experiments and more in the worldwide proliferation of labs that deal in deadly pathogens, natural or engineered.
He says there should be oversight, but that some genetic manipulation of viruses can provide valuable insights. Gene therapy, for example, uses altered viruses to deliver lifesaving genetic material into human cells.
And he wasn’t convinced by arguments laid out in an influential article by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, first published in Medium, implying SARS-CoV-2 was the product of genetic modification. There’s nothing about the virus that would make a natural origin unlikely.