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Coronapod: Uncertainty and the COVID 'lab-leak' theory

Noah Baker and Amy Maxmen ask how we should talk about 'lab-leaks'

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been allegations that SARS-CoV-2 could have originated in a Chinese lab. A phase one WHO investigation concluded that a 'lab-leak' was "extremely unlikely" and yet, the theory has seen a resurgence in recent weeks with several scientists wading into the debate.

In this episode of Coronapod, we delve into what scientists have been saying and ask how and why the 'lab-leak' hypothesis has gained so much traction. We ask if the way we communicate complex and nuanced science could be fuelling division, and what the fallout could be for international collaboration on ending the pandemic.

News: Divisive COVID ‘lab leak’ debate prompts dire warnings from researchers

Science: Investigate the origins of COVID-19

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01520-y

Transcript

Noah Baker and Amy Maxmen ask how we should talk about 'lab-leaks'

Benjamin Thompson

Welcome to Coronapod.

Noah Baker

In this show, we’re going to bring you Nature’s take on the latest COVID-19 developments.

Benjamin Thompson

And we’ll be speaking to experts around the world about research during the pandemic.

Amy Maxmen

We’re entering a new era now. We have new COVID strategies, there’s some new unknowns and we’ve got a vaccine.

Noah Baker

Hello, and welcome to Coronapod. We’ve been away for a few weeks but now we’re back and on the line, as ever, is reporter Amy Maxmen. Hi, Amy, how are you doing?

Amy Maxmen

Hi, I’m good. How are you?

Noah Baker

Not bad, thank you. So, we’ve had a few weeks off and in the last few weeks an awful lot has happened, including a resurgence of something that we’ve spoken about before, which is the ‘lab-leak’ theories. So, we’ll talk a little bit more about this in a minute, but before we do that, can you tell us what we mean by the lab-leak theory when it comes to coronavirus?

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, so, the lab-leak idea is basically going back to the most basic question: where did COVID-19 come from? Now, the weight of the evidence is that it does come from nature like most novel epidemics – Ebola, Zika, HIV, SARS, MERS, I mean, you name it – but we still don’t know what that chain of events was. Another hypothesis that we really can’t rule out is that it didn’t come from nature but it came out of a lab, and now that could either be deliberate, it could be totally accidental, it could be a coronavirus that was collected and that infected someone and that person spread it, or it could be that it was deliberately engineered for good or evil purposes, and then again it infected someone. Those are really speculative scenarios but they’re not impossible.

Noah Baker

And one of the reasons that this lab-leak theory appeared very quickly is because in Wuhan, the city where this virus was first seen, there is a virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is a high-security biology lab and people immediately put two and two together and said that’s where it must have come from.

Amy Maxmen

Exactly, so the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a top place to study coronaviruses, and that’s also the city where we first had the cases of COVID.

Noah Baker

Yeah, and I think this is where we have to start doing all the various disclaimers as people jump to that conclusion because it seems like that’s too much of a coincidence but actually, the reality is the lab studies the thing that’s near the lab, so when you’re in a place where there’s lots of coronaviruses that may be carried by bats, which is true of Wuhan, then the lab studies those coronaviruses. It’s not necessarily some kind of smoking gun.

Amy Maxmen

Right, it’s circumstantial. So, I think, maybe as we’ve talked about before, top virology labs often study the viruses around them. There’s a lab we talked about in West Africa that studied viruses that cause haemorrhagic diseases and that even predates Ebola. There’s great influenza labs in Hong Kong and other places in Asia near where we’ve seen influenza outbreaks. But again, I want to give voice to a number of scientists who want to be clear that they don’t think we can completely dismiss out of hand any possibility that it could have ever been a lab leak, and they’re not wrong. I mean, we have not found the chain of events that led to COVID. So, there’s been a couple of things since we spoke last. Actually, not a couple. There’s been a ton of stuff in the media, all over the internet, about this. I’ll say that something that Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization pointed out last week, there’s a lot of writing but there’s not really any evidence there, new evidence. But some stuff has come out. So, for example, there was a letter in Science a few weeks ago with about 18 scientists on it, and it basically said that we can’t take the lab leak off the table. We need to have more investigations. It actually even said all hypotheses are equally likely. I should say that that’s been contested. But it was immediately taken as a sign that scientists now think it’s a lab leak. That’s not what’s in the letter at all.

Noah Baker

Right, and I think one of the reasons we’re talking about this now is that it’s all over the US media, it’s being talked about on the big news channels, but it’s also because scientists have been really pulled into the heart of this kind of fracas, and scientists are there, sort of finding themselves on two sides of a debate which many scientists don’t even necessarily feel like should be happening.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I think there is sort of a growing divide among scientists, and I feel like when I talk to most, and I’ve talked, I should say, to dozens of scientists now about this, I think actually the divide is really nuanced in a way that maybe the public and the media sometimes doesn’t grasp very well. There’s sort of scientists that are saying, ‘Listen, if it’s possible, we need to investigate it.’ And there are scientists who are saying, ‘When you’re yelling to investigate it because it’s possible, the public hears, ‘It’s a lab leak’.’ So, the nuance is sort of researchers sort of disagreeing on how to convey uncertainty within science, which is completely natural. I’ll give you another example. There’s a piece in Medium in which David Baltimore, who’s this really smart biologist at Caltech, he’s a Nobel laureate, so he tells the writer of the Medium piece, okay, I looked at SARS-CoV-2 genome, and he found CGG codons that encodes the amino acid arginine. He says this is a really common codon in people but it’s very rare in viruses. So, apparently in the article he says this a smoking gun that it might have been engineered. Now, a virologist that studies virus genomes, Kristian Andersen at Scripps, he wrote a Twitter thread about this and said, ‘Okay, listen. It’s rare but it’s not absent and therefore it’s not a smoking gun. He notes that 3-5% of the arginine in coronaviruses is CGG, so it’s not something that had to be put in there by a human. So, then I emailed David Baltimore to ask him about this. What do you think about Kristian Andersen’s point? And Baltimore essentially said he knows what Kristian Andersen believes and that recombination, that natural evolution, could have produced this virus, and he also agrees that that’s a possibility. But then he also writes: ‘There are other possibilities and they should be considered and that’s all I meant to say.’ So, in other words, his point about it being a smoking gun has been picked up and flown through the media and all through the public as ‘David Baltimore says this was engineered’ and in fact what he meant to point out is that it might be engineered. It might also be natural. I don’t know.

Noah Baker

Right, and I think this is a problem that we have faced throughout this pandemic again, which is a kind of a disconnect between the way that scientists think about problems and phrase problems and the way that the general population of non-scientists think about problems and phrase problems. So, as scientists are sort of trained to doubt everything and think about all the different ways things can be and so you can’t rule it out unless you have clear evidence, that is kind of part of the way that scientists think, which isn’t necessarily how Josephine Bloggs in the street thinks, and we end up with potentially a big mountain being made out of something that was only really a molehill in the scientific community in the first place.

Amy Maxmen

Right, and the sad thing is it can be manipulated for political aims or for other aims that have nothing really to do with the evidence on either side. We saw that with climate change in the 80s. I have colleagues that have pointed this out on Twitter. In climate change debate, in the beginning, a lot of companies and politicians that didn’t want to have to regulate what they were doing really sort of stoked this idea of uncertainty in science. The science is out on this. We don’t really know if climate change is man-made. Similarly, when there was debates over if we should regulate cigarette use. There’s been statements leaked from executives at tobacco companies saying, ‘Doubt is our product.’

Noah Baker

And it is bizarre because in those cases that you’re describing of sort of companies or politicians using doubt for their own gains to kind of push an agenda, and yet doubt is often seen as one of the gold standards of good science, scientists that are willing to doubt and willing to not be too swayed by any one opinion unless the evidence is there. And it’s just two very different approaches to the same concept.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, exactly.

Noah Baker

One thing that we said at the beginning of this episode is that since we last spoke about the lab leak, which is when the WHO investigation was just coming to its end, there has been very little additional scientific evidence that’s come to light. What has come to light is speculation, emails, suggestions, that maybe high-profile scientists like Anthony Fauci were concerned about this earlier on or there was a report that a journalist was prevented from being allowed into a cave near Wuhan, which also led to people sort of ringing alarm bells saying, ‘Well, what’s being covered up there?’ But these new pieces of the puzzle are not scientific evidence. They are political problems which are fuelling this. But really, from a scientist’s perspective, aside from the fact that we can’t rule this out because we don’t have evidence to rule this out, the discussion over the last couple of months really hasn’t been a scientific one, but scientists have been involved in it and so I think people have read it as a scientific one. Is that a fair assessment?

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I think that is a fair assessment. Like you mentioned, leaks from the last administration about how the lab in Wuhan wasn’t safe enough or that there might have been people who were sick in November 2019 from the lab, suggesting that maybe they were infected. Right now, we don’t even know the quality of those documents. Maybe we’ll find out more details there, but I wouldn’t put that in the realm of science right now, or especially not something I would say that scientists can evaluate because unless I see the documents or other people see the documents and understand their validity, it’s sort of hard to talk about those. And I, myself, want to be really clear. There are no hypotheses that we can rule out. Yes, I think an investigation is a good idea.

Noah Baker

Well, so far, the most in-depth investigation that has happened is what we’ve talked about before, which was a two-week expedition by the WHO. What is the next steps?

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, so the next steps are, that was meant to be a phase one investigation. There’s always been the idea that these investigations take a long time. There’ll be a phase two. The scientific community wants more investigations on this. Here’s the trick, another trick about all of this. How do we get there? On Twitter, I’ve had people tell me like, ‘We must demand this,’ and I get that point, but China does ultimately have to agree to allow people to have visas and to let scientists sort of go about the hard work of tracking down how this virus came to be. And to get there, that’s going to require some degree of collaboration. So, I think a lot of the virologists who have long done epidemic origin studies are sort of worried that the accusations are actually going to make collaborations more difficult and therefore we’ll get less answers on how COVID-19 began.

Noah Baker

Absolutely, a scientific, objective discussion of what we need to know more about to get to the bottom of this is very different from what comes across as an accusation which might lead to China saying, ‘Well, look, if you’re only coming here to try to prove that we did something wrong,’ then they’re not going to be particularly willing to engage with that.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, exactly. And then I also talked to people who study foreign policy and global health and they have a different but related set of concerns. The more antagonism that’s stoked, and I should say, now I am not talking about necessarily what a lot of scientists are doing but sort of the general public and politicians, this is very much turning into a ‘China caused the pandemic.’ But the more sort of aggression just directed at China that happens, it means we might be less likely to get consensus on some really important issues that need to be solved within a pandemic that is still currently going on and might get a lot worse if we continue to let COVID evolve. So, for example, if we want to get agreements on how countries share genomic data, for example, that requires a consensus from multiple countries to agree to share genomic data in a particular sort of way. There’s other issues. Maybe we need to have countries reach a consensus on how we are going to ramp up the manufacturing of vaccines so that vaccines go around the world and we stand less of a chance of having wave after wave of an evolving COVID-19 situation. So, if there’s going to be a waiver on IP or whatever, multiple countries have to agree to that. So, a lot of these moves require consensus. If we want to reform the rules that the WHO operates with and let’s say we want the WHO to declare pandemics, countries have to reach a consensus on issues like that. And so, people who study foreign policy that I’ve spoken with, and global health policy in particular, are worried that this growing antagonism that’s been going on for a long time between the US and China is going to make a consensus on issues like this more difficult.

Noah Baker

And there’s also a lot of just conflation between the things that scientists need, like sharing genomic data, for example, and the things that politicians want, which is ways to divert attention away from things that may be seen as failings or ways they want to divert attention towards things they’ve done well, and there are a lot of kind of competing interests here which may ultimately all sort of conspire together against people and the wellbeing of people.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I mean, it’s a real communication challenge when you really think about it. In some ways, a lot of people’s fears and concerns are totally valid. Should we worry about lab safety? And I just talked to a biosecurity researcher, and absolutely, she studied biosecurity her entire career at Johns Hopkins, and she was just saying, yeah, she’s been worried about biosecurity. That doesn’t mean she thinks this is a lab leak. But would she like to see biosecurity higher on an agenda within nations? Yes, she would. So, maybe it’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not wrong to worry about what scientists are doing, but what’s the best way to get where we’re going?’ So, I think it’s a lot of sort of communication challenges that I’ll be trying myself to sort of master and I think scientists also will be trying to think about how to best communicate their processes.

Noah Baker

I completely agree and it occurs to me, even when we’ve spoken about vaccines and adverse events, that we’ve tried to make the point as much as we can on the show that although they’re extremely unlikely and the data shows they’re extremely unlikely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. That doesn’t mean we should say, ‘No, therefore it’s not a thing. Don’t talk about it because it almost never happens’. We should talk about them and we do need to be investigated because it’s important. That doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous by any kind of statistical standard, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about it, and I think the same is true of lab leaks as well. It seems very unlikely but it would be remiss to just therefore rule it out.

Amy Maxmen

Right, and at the same time, also pointing out this doesn’t mean that it happened because then you go down this really dangerous path. And here’s the thing, I think it’s really unlikely we’re going to solve this quickly. We didn’t get in there super fast with an investigation – when I say ‘there’ I mean China where the first cases were reported. Whatever kind of intermediate host might have been infected, maybe they’re not infected anymore. It’s going to be a long haul, both from the animal side and then from the lab side. Let’s say, something happens and China officials allow Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to turn over their notebooks. Let’s say that happens. First of all, I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but let’s say it happens, right. And let’s say that no one wrote down, ‘I’ve got SARS-CoV-2,’ or whatever, shows a sequence, or let’s say we look in their freezers and there’s no SARS-CoV-2 sitting around in there with a label on it that says October 2019 or whatever. Let’s say there’s no really clear evidence of a lab leak. That is still going to be hard to rule out that it ever happened. There can still be doubts. People could still say, ‘What about this one notebook that I never saw. I see it in a photo. Where did it go?’ And I guess what I’m trying to say here is this investigation is going to continue for perhaps years. Maybe we won’t have an answer, and I guess, how are we going to relay that to the public, and that’s something I’m thinking about for sure.

Noah Baker

Okay, well, as we’ve mentioned, there’s going to be a lot more to follow on this, but maybe not next week, maybe not next month, but over the next couple of years, I’m sure we will keep an eye on this because this has been one of the biggest stories in all of our lifetimes and it will continue to be. But for now, Amy, I’ll speak to you soon and I hope you have a good week.

Amy Maxmen

Thank you. Thanks so much.

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