The coronavirus pandemic almost certainly originated from an animal, likely from a wildlife market in China, and not from a lab leak, a group of virus experts said Wednesday.
Theories about a lab leak are mostly based on coincidence, not hard evidence, said the group of 20 high-level experts from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
They had been following discussions, including at the White House, about the possibility of a laboratory origin of the virus, and they worked together to analyze the evidence.
“I think you can make a pretty strong case that it wasn’t leaked from a lab,” Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane School of Medicine and one of the scientists who signed the paper, told Citizen Free Press.
Experts present published evidence in a pre-print review published online.
The document is signed by some of the leading experts on coronavirus and virus genetics, including Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California; evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, from the University of Arizona; Andrew Rambaut, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh; Stephen Goldstein, of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah; Angela Rasmussen, from the University of Saskatchewan; Joel Wertheim of the University of California San Diego and Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust of Great Britain.
Many have conducted their own investigations into the possible origin of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
“We maintain that there is a substantial body of scientific evidence supporting the zoonotic (animal) origin of SARS-CoV-2,” they wrote.
“There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin. There is no evidence that the first cases had any connection to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in contrast to the clear epidemiological links with the animal markets in Wuhan, no evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology owned or worked on a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic,” they added.
“The suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 could have a laboratory origin is due to the coincidence that it was first detected in a city that is home to a major virological laboratory that studies coronaviruses.”
But it is not a surprise that a new virus could emerge in Wuhan, they noted.
“Wuhan is the largest city in central China with multiple animal markets and is a major travel and trade hub, well connected with other areas both within China and internationally,” they wrote.
“Therefore, the link to Wuhan is more likely to reflect the fact that pathogens often require densely populated areas to establish themselves.”
Garry and his colleagues also say that it is “extremely unlikely” that the lab was working on a naturally occurring virus that was accidentally leaked.
“You have to have an unlikely set of circumstances for something like this to happen. If it was one person in the lab, how did it get to all the animal markets?” Garry asked. “There are other ways, much more likely, that this virus entered the human population. Like SARS 1, it happened in the same way with SARS 2.”
What was lost was some of the valuable evidence that disappeared when animal markets in the area were cleaned and disinfected, Garry said. “They closed farms. They cleaned those animals from that market,” he said. Samples from the Huanan and other seafood market yielded evidence of the virus, experts said, but animals that could have been infected and could have provided the necessary evidence were removed.
“We would like to know more. We want the Chinese government to be a little more open about the wildlife trade,” Garry said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been leading efforts to find the origins of the coronavirus and issued a report in March saying that the virus most likely originated in an animal and was transmitted to people, such as other coronaviruses have. The least likely, he said, is the possibility that a virus was designed in a laboratory and leaked.
Much of the investigation has focused on the first cases in Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market.
But the WHO has come under fire for accepting evidence from China, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has been taking another look at the origins.
It is not the first joint letter from scientists fed up with speculation. On Monday, in another letter to The Lancet, a group of scientists called for reason and science in the research.
“The careful and transparent collection of scientific information is essential to understand how the virus has spread and develop strategies to mitigate the ongoing impact of covid-19, whether it has occurred entirely in nature or has somehow reached the community through an alternative route, and prevent future pandemics,” they wrote.
“Accusations and conjecture are not helpful, as they do not facilitate access to information and objective assessment of the pathway from a bat virus to a human pathogen that could help prevent a future pandemic.”
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