Another Group of Scientists Calls for Further Inquiry Into Origins of the Coronavirus

A gaggle of 18 scientists acknowledged Thursday in a letter published in the journal Science that there’s not sufficient proof to determine whether or not a pure origin or an unintended laboratory leak brought on the Covid-19 pandemic.

They argued, as the U.S. authorities and different nations have, for a brand new investigation to discover the place the virus got here from.

The organizers of the letter, Jesse Bloom, who research the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, mentioned they strove to articulate a wait-and-see viewpoint that they consider is shared by many scientists. Many of the signers haven’t spoken out earlier than.

“Most of the discussion you hear about SARS-CoV-2 origins at this point is coming from, I think, the relatively small number of people who feel very certain about their views,” Dr. Bloom mentioned.

He added: “Anybody who’s making statements with a high level of certainty about this is just outstripping what’s possible to do with the available evidence.”

The new letter acknowledged: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”

Proponents of the concept that the virus could have leaked from a lab, particularly the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China the place SARS viruses had been studied, have been lively this yr since a World Health Organization workforce issued a report claiming that such a leak was extraordinarily unlikely, regardless that the mission by no means investigated any Chinese labs. The workforce did go to the Wuhan lab, however didn’t examine it. A lab investigation was by no means half of their mandate. The report, produced in a mission with Chinese scientists, drew intensive criticism from the U.S. authorities and others that the Chinese authorities had not cooperated totally and had restricted the worldwide scientists’ entry to data.

The new letter argued for a brand new and extra rigorous investigation of virus origins that might contain a broader vary of specialists and safeguard towards conflicts of curiosity.

Unlike different latest statements, the new letter didn’t come down in favor of one state of affairs or one other. Recent letters by another group of scientists and international affairs experts argued at length for the relative likelihood of a laboratory leak. Previous statements from different scientists and the W.H.O. report each asserted {that a} pure origin was by far the most believable.

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, mentioned he signed the new letter as a result of “the recent W.H.O. report on the origins of the virus, and its discussion, spurred several of us to get in touch with each other and talk about our shared desire for dispassionate investigation of the origins of the virus.”

“I certainly respect the opinion of others who may disagree with what we’ve said in the letter, but I felt I had no choice but to put my concerns out there,” he mentioned.

Another signer, Sarah E. Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, mentioned, “I think it is more likely than not that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from an animal reservoir rather than a lab.”

But “lab accidents do happen and can have disastrous consequences,” she added. “I am concerned about the short- and long-term consequences of failing to evaluate the possibility of laboratory escape in a rigorous way. It would be a troublesome precedent.”

The listing of signers contains researchers with deep data of the SARS household of viruses, resembling Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, who had collaborated with the Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli in research done at the university on the original SARS virus. Dr. Baric didn’t reply to makes an attempt to succeed in him by e-mail and phone.

While this group of scientists doesn’t single out any researchers by title, the letter finds fault with those that have additionally been vocal in supporting the idea of a pure origin, citing a scarcity of proof.

Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., has been a powerful proponent of the overwhelming chance of a pure origin. He was one of the authors of an often cited paper in March 2020 that dismissed the chance of a laboratory origin based mostly largely on the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. “We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” that paper acknowledged.

Speaking for himself solely, Dr. Relman mentioned in an interview that “the piece that Kristian Anderson and four others wrote last March in my view simply fails to provide evidence to support their conclusions.”

Dr. Andersen, who reviewed the letter in Science, mentioned that each explanations had been theoretically attainable. But, “the letter suggests a false equivalence between the lab escape and natural origin scenarios,” he mentioned. “To this day, no credible evidence has been presented to support the lab leak hypothesis, which remains grounded in speculation.”

Instead, he mentioned, accessible information “are consistent with a natural emergence of a novel virus from a zoonotic reservoir, as has been observed so many times in the past.” He mentioned he supported additional inquiry into the origin of the virus.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, has criticized the politicization of the laboratory leak idea.

She helps additional investigation, however mentioned that “there is more evidence (both genomic and historical precedent) that this was the result of zoonotic emergence rather than a laboratory accident.”

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