More than a year ago in early March of 2020, the United States entered expansive lockdowns to combat the spread of COVID-19. Since then, our nation has endured an economic recession, social isolation, and above all, more than 552,000 thousand deaths due to the virus, which have left millions of friends and family devastated and grieving. Last weekend, several members of the American medical and scientific community came out to ask why, after this year of hardship, we still do not know with certainty where the virus originated from.
In appearances on primetime news networks, experts and leaders in disease control and virology have become more outspoken about what they know about the virus. On 60 Minutes, Jamie Metzl, a former NSC official in the Clinton administration and member of a World Health Organization (WHO) advisory committee on genetic engineering, said that the WHO’s investigation of the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan was nothing more than “a highly-chaperoned, highly-curated study tour.”
He questioned how coincidental it was for COVID-19 to originate in a live food market in Wuhan. The city is also home to China’s level four virology institute, with probably the world’s largest collection of bat viruses, including bat coronaviruses. Leslie Stahl also asked Metzl why the WHO wasn’t able to conduct their own investigation and take samples from the virology lab.
“While they were there, they didn’t demand access to the records and samples and key personnel. That’s because of the ground rules China set with the WHO, which has never had the authority to make demands or enforce international protocols…On top of that, the WHO agreed that in most instances China would do the primary investigation and then just share its findings… Imagine if we have asked the Soviet Union to do a co-investigation of Chernobyl. It doesn’t really make sense.”
Metzl added that China had ruled out a lab accident long before the team from the World Health Organization arrived at the airport in Wuhan on January 14th. The WHO team included some of the world’s leading experts on how viruses are transmitted from animals to humans, but even though there have been accidental lab leaks of viruses in China in the past – some that have infected people and killed at least one – no one on the team was trained in how to formally investigate a lab leak.
After a two-week quarantine in China, Metzl said, “they (WHO) had some tense exchanges with their counterparts, a team of Chinese experts, over their refusal to provide raw data.”
On CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta held a discussion with some of the U.S.’s leading minds on disease control, virology, and medicine to discuss what happened over the past year. One of the biggest media takeaways from the special came from Robert Redfield, the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control under former President Trump, who said, “I’m of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory — escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”
Over the past year, the voice of reason for the American people has been Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci was also interviewed by Sanjay Gupta, and while he disagreed with Redfield’s assumption about where the virus came from, he was critical about the lack of information coming from China about the virus from day one:
“I always had skepticism about it because of what we went through with SARS… the Chinese are saying, ‘Oh, it’s flu, it’s flu’, and then the next thing you know, SARS was all over the world in Canada and Australia, all over the place. So, they are not very transparent in the past. It wasn’t outright lying; they just didn’t give you all the information.”
On March 4th, more than two dozen experts – including Metzl and virologists – signed an open letter calling for a new international investigation, this time with a scientific team that has the power “to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation,” and to specifically look into if the outbreak occurred as a result of a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the first outbreak occurred.
“Based on our analysis, and as confirmed by the global study convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese authorities, there is as yet no evidence demonstrating a fully natural origin of this virus…Because we believe the joint team process and efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation, we call on the international community to put in place a structure and process that does.”
While there has been no evidence pointing to a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – primarily because no data has been allowed to be released to the public – there also has been no data or evidence pointing the theory that the virus was spread as a result of transmission from a bat in a live food market.
Antonio Regalado, in the MIT Technology Review, writes, “This time, though, the intermediate-host hypothesis has one big problem. More than a year after COVID-19 began, no food animal has been identified as a reservoir for the pandemic virus.” In other words, no one has found a “direct progenitor” of the virus, he writes, and therefore the pandemic “remains an unsolved mystery.”
Another possibility under consideration is that the virus may have reached Wuhan on a frozen food shipment that included a frozen wild animal. This theory would mean that the virus could have originated somewhere else in the world and was shipped into China. This theory also has no credible evidence to support its conclusion.
Most American scientists and biologists were unwilling to speak out during the Trump administration for fears of being associated with a President who was calling the virus the ‘Kung Flu’. But now with Trump out of office, the medical and scientific community want what they have based their professional lives on: proven, credible data that can determine what really happened in Wuhan.
David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, says a lab leak was never the subject of a “fair and dispassionate discussion of the facts as we know them.” Relman also offers a warning about what could happen if we don’t get the data from China: “We need a much better sense about where to place our resources and effort. This is why the origin question is so important,” he writes.
Other academics echo this sentiment as well. Charles Schmidt argued that uncovering the virus’s origins is crucial to stopping the next pandemic. Alison Young, an Opinion contributor for USA Today, argued that while “Wuhan might not have played any role in the origin of the pandemic. But a year later, no source has been found, and the world deserves a thorough, unbiased investigation of all plausible theories that is conducted without fear or favor.”