David Quammen is a science journalist and author. His most recent book is “Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus.”
One of the world’s most sensitive and consequential scientific questions will soon be grist for discussion among the members of a congressional subcommittee. The question is this: Where did the virus that causes covid-19 come from?
The subcommittee, created under a resolution adopted by the House on Jan. 9, is charged with investigating aspects of the pandemic and our national response. Its members (seven Republicans, five Democrats) have still not been named. The origin question is a seductive one, but it is also the mystery that they will be least likely and least qualified to solve — and they should focus their mission elsewhere.
Virologists, epidemiologists, molecular evolutionary biologists and other experts around the globe have studied the origin matter for three years. They have scrutinized the genome of the covid virus and compared it with similar coronaviruses long known from wildlife. They have studied its peculiar features, pondered the ways it evolves and placed it in context among other lethal new viruses.
Most such experts say they believe this virus almost certainly reached humans by natural spillover — that is, from a nonhuman animal host. It closely resembles other coronaviruses that have been identified, through arduous fieldwork and rigorous genomic analysis, in small bats that roost in caves of southern China and Southeast Asia. Worrisome coronaviruses have also turned up in other wild mammals, including raccoon dogs, palm civets and pangolins, and one of those animals might have served as an intermediate host of the covid virus after close exposure to bats.
How would a raccoon dog suffer such an exposure? By being captured, caged and loaded for transport with bats and other animals sucked into the wildlife-for-food traffic that has been widespread and economically important in China. Such coronavirus-sharing has happened before: Palm civets trafficked to the city of Guangzhou in 2003 served as intermediate hosts of the original SARS coronavirus, acquired from bats and transmitted to humans. And palm civets, as well as raccoon dogs and other captured wildlife, were on sale as food in late 2019 in the Huanan “wet market” of Wuhan, in and around which the first few dozen known covid-19 cases appeared.
After the 2003 SARS event, the prospect that another coronavirus could spill from bats into humans and cause even worse devastation was never far-fetched or unimaginable. In fact, I predicted it myself back in 2012, in the book “Spillover” — not through my own prescience but simply by reporting what some of the world’s leading experts on viral ecology and evolution were saying.
Other opinionizers on the covid-19 origin question, mostly amateur sleuths but also some journalists, have argued since early 2020 that this coronavirus came to humans — maybe? probably? definitely? — from a laboratory. There, the narrative goes, it was either assembled by genetic engineering, for nefarious purposes, or modified, in well-meant but reckless experiments, to be more infectious in humans. From the laboratory, according to this hypothesis, it was either intentionally or accidentally released. Some reputable scientists have agreed that a lab leak is theoretically possible and insisted that the possibility should be entertained.
And it should. The lab-leak idea stands as a long-shot alternative to the far stronger hypothesis of a natural origin. To settle the matter with greater confidence, we need more data: more field sampling of viruses from wild animals in southern China and Southeast Asia, and more sampling throughout the supply chain that has provided Chinese markets with such wildlife. If there’s anything to indicate a laboratory accident, let that come out, too. Right now, though, a sizable body of evidence supports the natural-origin scenario and, so far, no positive evidence indicates a lab leak. But if that imbalance were to change, the scientific consensus could change, too. That’s how science works.
This question of origin is important far beyond our understanding of covid-19. It bears implications for how we shape our societies and institutions in the future, preparing ourselves — or neglecting to prepare — against future pandemic threats.
Consider one implication you might draw from a lab leak: We need less science, especially of the sort that fiddles with dangerous viruses. And from a natural spillover: We need more science, especially of the sort that studies dangerous viruses lurking in wild animals. From a lab leak: It was those foolish scientists in a Chinese lab who unleashed this terrible virus upon us. Suspicion, accusation, presumption of guilt and even a tincture of racism may therefore inform our relations with China, not an effort to encourage transparency and scientific exchange. From a natural spillover: Every one of us who consumes resources drawn from richly diverse natural ecosystems — be it meat or vital minerals for technology, such as coltan and cobalt — shares responsibility for the new viruses that attack humans. Why? Because those viruses reach us when humans invade such ecosystems, including the Congolese forests where coltan is mined, and come into contact with the virus-bearing wildlife living there.
We need to solve this origin conundrum because we need to take action. We need better structures for pandemic preparedness and response in this country, stronger international systems of surveillance for new outbreaks, vastly increased training of molecular biologists and disease field scientists around the world, and fuller collaborations among countries — including China. Only these measures will shore up the failure points that made our response to covid-19 such a disaster.
Congress has an important role to play in all this. But attempting to determine the virus’s origin isn’t it. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic should examine, as it has been chartered to do, the many aspects of this nation’s pandemic response that merit policy review: vaccine development and rollout, taxpayer-funded relief programs, the negative impacts of school closures versus the benefits, and the crucial balance between civil liberties and public health.
The not-quite-solved mystery of exactly where this virus came from and how it found its way into humans, on the other hand, is a scientific question best left to scientists. It’s beyond the purview of 12 partisan members of Congress — and if they are wise, they will leave it in expert hands.