When something goes terribly wrong, it is human instinct to look for the human hand – perhaps to reassure ourselves that life is not wholly beyond our control. As the flu pandemic reached the US just over a century ago, some blamed German agents. So it wasn’t surprising when people claimed that coronavirus had leaked from – or was even manufactured in – a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. Nor was it surprising when Donald Trump and his allies promoted the story as they sought to pass the buck for the mounting death toll in the US and embellish the then president’s China-hawk credentials.
It is more striking that the idea is suddenly gaining ground. Last month, Joe Biden ordered his intelligence agencies to intensify their efforts to study Covid’s origins; one reportedly leans towards the lab hypothesis, though others in the US and abroad disagree. Now, a leaked draft communique from the G7 summit in Cornwall has said that leaders will call for a new World Health Organization investigation into the pandemic’s beginnings. More scientists have suggested that the idea should be taken seriously.
Yet most still agree that natural transmission is by far the most likely route, and a Nobel prize-winning biologist who talked of a “smoking gun” – suggesting that Covid was genetically modified and escaped from a lab – has just said he overstated the case. One reason that the lab theory has flourished is, perversely, because of what we don’t know; establishing the precise path of a disease is a lengthy and complicated business. We know where the virus took hold, and that its origins are highly likely to have been in a bat virus. But while an investigation by the WHO said that it probably jumped to humans via another animal, the details are unclear. Some scientists think it could have passed to humans at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studied such viruses, and a smaller number think that it could have been engineered in some way; the institute reportedly carried out controversial “gain-of-function” research manipulating pathogens to help understand their behaviour and the risks they pose.
The real shift has been not scientific but political. Mr Trump’s departure means that the lab theory is no longer being pursued in overtly bad faith, encouraging others to take it more seriously. Mr Biden is also determined to show that he too is tough on Beijing; the theme of his first foreign trip as president is, to a large degree, the need for democracies to band together, particularly in facing an increasingly authoritarian and confident China. The coronavirus questions are in part a proxy for wider concerns about China’s behaviour and its impact on the rest of the world as it rises. Efforts by Chinese officials to initially cover up the outbreak, the delay in confirming human-to-human transmission, the limiting of the WHO investigation and the spread of misinformation suggesting that Covid originated elsewhere, have all fuelled suspicion.
China should share all the raw data it holds. No one believes it will. Regardless, it cannot avoid responsibility for its known failures in handling the outbreak. But nor should other countries, notably the US and the UK, be allowed to dodge the blame for their own terrible mistakes in responding to this pandemic.
We also need to think about the next one. Whatever the origins of this particular virus, both the increased risks of zoonotic transmission due to human-made factors including modern farming practices, and the security of research institutions internationally, demand close attention: we know that leaks do happen, and that gain-of-function research is a very risky business. We may never find out how exactly how this virus reached humans. But what we do know tells us there is plenty that can and must be fixed.