Nicholas Wade is an author and former science writer for The New York Times.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has disrupted people’s lives around the world for more than a year. But there’s no clear answer on one of the most important things about it: where it came from.
In fact, if you brush away all the politics about the issue — Donald Trump said it came from a lab, therefore it can’t have — and look just at the scientific facts, a reasonably likely answer is buried there. I’ll try to explain what it is and sort out some of the consequences.
There are two theories about the origin of SARS2, as the virus can be called for short. One is that it jumped naturally from bats to people, as the SARS1 epidemic did in 2002. The other is that it escaped from an experiment in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s leading center of research on bat-type viruses.
The natural-emergence theory has long held the upper hand, in part because of strong statements made by virology experts from early on.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in The Lancet on Feb. 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened.
Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, calling for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the front line of fighting the disease.
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the New York City-based EcoHealth Alliance. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to The Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”
Virologists have a significant stake in the origin issue because they have for years enhanced the danger of natural viruses in their laboratories.
Their rationale is that they could get ahead of nature by discovering the few tweaks that will let an animal virus infect humans. This knowledge, they argued, would help predict and prevent pandemics.
So if in fact one of these souped-up viruses is the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, virologists everywhere, not just in China, will have a lot of explaining to do. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” MIT Technology Review editor Antonio Regalado said in March 2020.
Bat Lady and the Wuhan Institute of Virology
As it happens, virologists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China were doing exactly these kinds of experiments. The program was headed by Dr. Zheng-li Shi, known as Bat Lady in China because of her intense interest in bat viruses. Dr. Shi had gathered many coronaviruses, the type to which SARS2 belongs, from caves in Yunnan in southern China. Her research focused on the spike proteins which stud the surface of the virus and latch on to its target cells.
The exact nature of the spike proteins determines which kind of animal species the virus can infect. Shi was taking spike protein genes from different viruses, inserting them into a series of virus backbones, and trying to find the combination that would best attack humans.
She tested her viruses out not on real people but on cultures of human cells and on humanized mice — mice that have been genetically engineered to carry in the cells of their airways the human protein that’s the target of SARS-type viruses.