No one should underestimate the difficulty — it might take years. But understanding the origins of this pandemic will help immensely in preparing for another one.
The recent joint WHO-China investigation found the most likely source of the coronavirus was a direct or indirect zoonotic spillover to humans. However, the mission reported that more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from across China’s provinces, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak. The investigating team said the least likely pathway was an inadvertent leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the outbreak first exploded. The leak hypothesis was not investigated, although it is known that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was carrying out risky “gain of function” experiments on bat coronaviruses, which involve modifying viral genomes to give them new properties, including the ability to infect lung cells of laboratory mice that had been genetically changed to respond as human respiratory cells would.
China has strenuously denied that a leak came from the lab, calling it a “farce,” and pointing instead to frozen food packaging from abroad. Whether China likes it or not, a serious investigation must encompass zoonotic spillover, the possibility of a laboratory leak and any other possibility backed by evidence.
A group of scientists, in an open letter released Friday, correctly called for a “full scientific and forensic investigation into all possible origins” of the virus, and provided a set of unanswered questions about the laboratory and its work. Some of them concern the mystery of a sickness that overtook six men in Mojiang, Yunnan province, in 2012. Three of them died after clearing bat guano in an abandoned mine. “To this day all the coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 come from that Mojiang mine,” the scientists say, yet the Wuhan institute, which collected samples, has cloaked its research in obfuscation and secrecy. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the United States and other nations are writing recommendations to the WHO for a broad phase-two investigation.
The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has declared that a second investigative phase is necessary, and that no theory is off the table. The WHO is a member-based United Nations organization, and it lacks unilateral regulatory powers. Yet a credible phase-two investigation could not be more important. The WHO member states, meeting in late May as the World Health Assembly, must insist on the launch of a far-reaching inquiry with the proper staff and a wide-ranging mandate to go wherever the evidence leads. The virus origins may be hard to locate, but it should not be for lack of trying.