How seriously should we take the US DoE’s Covid lab leak theory?
What has the US energy department said about the origin of the Covid outbreak?
According to the Wall Street Journal, an updated and classified 2021 US energy department report has concluded that the coronavirus behind the recent pandemic most likely emerged from a laboratory leak but not as part of a weapons programme.
Does this report mean it is more likely Covid came from a lab?
Not necessarily. The report’s conclusion runs counter to that from several scientific studies as well as reports by a number of other US intelligence agencies. What’s more, experts are unable to scrutinise the evidence the US energy department report is based on.
Dr Filippa Lentzos, a reader in science and international security at King’s College London, said the origin question remained open.
“It could well have resulted from a natural spillover, but it could equally be the result of research-related activity, such as a lab leak or fieldwork incident. There simply is no hard evidence either way, just historical precedent and circumstantial evidence,” she said.
“While I believe the ‘lab leak’ theory a real possibility, I should point out that the DoE assessment has ‘low confidence’ in that assessment and their assessment did not change the minds of any of the other agencies.”
Lentzos added that according to guidance from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence: “A low confidence level generally indicates that the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information, or that the IC has significant concerns or problems with the information sources.”
What do scientists make of it?
Tarik Jašarević, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said the agency had not received any information on this particular assessment.
“WHO and Sago [the Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens] will keep examining all available scientific evidence that would help us advance the knowledge on the origin of Sars-CoV-2 and we call on China and the scientific community to undertake necessary studies in that direction. Until we have more evidence all hypotheses are still on the table,” Jašarević said.
However, others have thrown cold water on the report.
“It is incorrect to frame this issue as scientifically undecided,” said Prof Angie Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. “Two prior studies – one of which I co-authored – demonstrate clearly using multiple lines of evidence that the pandemic emerged into the human population at least twice over an approximately two-week period at or immediately upstream of Huanan market in association with the live animal trade,” she said.
“Any data suggesting a lab leak would have to be consistent with this evidence. So far, all competing hypotheses challenging our findings have failed to pass peer review. Since the DoE findings are described as ‘weak’ and ‘low confidence’, I’d be surprised if this new intelligence meets that bar.”
Prof David Robertson, who studies viral evolution at the University of Glasgow, raised concerns that “vague rumours of new information” were contributing to misinformation on the issue including how much was known about the origins of the virus. “It’s important to appreciate that we’ve lots of evidence for a natural origin for Sars-CoV-2, ie not just a single report but multiple lines of evidence which has steadily accumulated since 2020,” he said.
Dong-Yan Jin, a virology professor at Hong Kong University, agreed. “To me and other scientists who have common sense and who know well about the facts, the possibility of lab leak is extremely low. The story of lab leak in Wuhan is a fiction and it is as ridiculous as the counterclaim that Sars-CoV-2 comes from lab leaks in the US,” he said.
But Lentzos added that further work was needed. “I don’t take DoE’s new position as a ringing endorsement of the lab leak theory, but I do think we need to continue having an open mind on this issue and to continue pressing for an international forensic investigation – though I appreciate the chances of this happening, and of an investigation reaching a convincing conclusion, are exceedingly slim,” she said.
Why has it been so hard to say with certainty how the outbreak began?
One problem is that it is nearly always challenging to pinpoint the origins of a virus. For starters, finding the site of a “spillover” – where a virus hops from one species to another – is difficult and gets harder with time, while comparing the genetics of the virus in the first people infected with virus sequences obtained from animals to find a host is no mean feat. At present, the identity of the exact type of animal from which the virus jumped to humans remains unclear.
There is also a precedent for both laboratory accidents involving biologically hazardous organisms, and for coronavirus epidemics – and other diseases – to have known animal origins, while the Wuhan Institute of Virology being located in the same town as the wet market that has been at the focus of investigations has seemed, for some, too much of a coincidence.
The situation has not been helped by the debate becoming heavily politicised. However, a key issue has been transparency. “The ‘investigation’, or more accurately ‘WHO-China joint mission’, agreed to between WHO and China was not a forensic investigation with expertise to investigate both natural and research-related origins. It was set up to investigate a natural spillover,” said Lentzos, adding that Beijing heavily influenced what the mission could see, what data it had access to, who it could speak with and other factors.
“There was, and continues to be, lack of cooperation from Beijing,” she said.