“We are ten months after the start of one of the most catastrophic global health events of our lives, “Daniel Relman, Stanford University immunologist and bio-threats expert, wrote in November,” and, worryingly, we still don’t know how it started. This lingering uncertainty is of the utmost importance: The precise origins of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, once resolved, will allow us to better prepare for future pandemic threats. But to find out what really happened will require careful and coordinated scientific investigations that are only just beginning.
In the meantime, we still have to speculate. A long test by Nicholson Baker, published several weeks ago in New York Magazine, argued that the pandemic started with a laboratory accident; and while the article was tarred like a irresponsible, misinformed and unilateral presentation, even the most ardent critics could grant that the possibility of a laboratory leak cannot be ruled out with certainty.
There are now two major efforts to investigate the origin of Covid-19: one put in place by the World Health Organization and the other organized by a leading medical journal, The Lancet. Investigations should take months, if not years, and, given the many challenges involved, they may never provide conclusive answers. It is already clear, however, that both are compromised by a lack of clear procedures for handling conflicts of interest and questionable independence. It is now imperative that governments and the scientific community act quickly to improve them.
The problem begins with the nature of the investigations, which must determine, to begin with, whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus has passed directly from wild animals to the population (the most likely scenario, according to most experts) or maybe escaped a lab. But many of the people best qualified to address this issue – those with the most relevant technical knowledge – also happen to be those who work in those same labs or have close professional connections to the people who do so.
In other words, these are exactly the people who could themselves be blamed (either directly or as part of a research community) if the virus were ever traced back to a lab.
This fundamental tension is not at all uncommon in the convening of expert committees, by governments or otherwise. Decades ago, scientists who had relationships with tobacco companies were among those who best understood the effects of smoking on public health, but their inclusion on health advisory committees was problematic and helped motivate more rigorous approaches at manage conflicts of interest. Fortunately, governments around the world have a long history of implementing these approaches; and it is certainly possible to exploit relevant expertise via questioning or formal testimony without including the people in conflict as the investigators themselves. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether any of the major investigations into the origins of the pandemic follow relevant best practices.
For example, the two investigations include Peter Daszak, disease ecologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization with a history of researching Coronaviruses linked to SARS and their effects on humans, including collaborative work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan Institute happens to be the only laboratory in China this is allowed to work with the most dangerous pathogens in the world, and it is located at the apparent zero point of the current epidemic.
If there was a lab leak – and, again, most experts don’t believe the available evidence points in that direction – then the Wuhan Institute and its U.S. partner would be on a short list of candidates to investigate. It should be obvious that no one with a connection to either organization can play a formal role in a truly independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic. (Of course, their expert input could and should be solicited in other ways.)
It should also be noted that Daszak expressed his certainty, very early in the crisis, that the disease originated in nature. Last winter, just after the WHO first named the virus, it drafted an official statement to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 is not of natural origin” and ” stand alongside ”his colleagues in Wuhan and across China. More than two dozen other scientists would sign this letter, which was published by The Lancet on February 19, 2020. Emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act suggest that Daszak organized the effort right from the start.