Researchers at a number of top universities have penned a letter saying theories that COVID-19 escaped from a Wuhan lab ‘remain viable’ and called for further studies to investigate the origins of the virus.
Stanford University microbiologist David Relman and the University of Washington virologist Jesse Bloom organized the letter published in the journal Science and signed by 18 prominent biologists from universities like Harvard and Cambridge.
Claims that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been laughed off as conspiracy theories – but the researchers suggest in the letter that the ‘hypotheses’ cannot be ruled out until there is more evidence.
Relman told The Times of London that ‘many who signed this letter feel the same way’ that researchers ‘simply just don’t have enough information.’
Researchers at a number of top universities have penned a letter claiming theories that COVID-19 escaped from a Wuhan lab ‘remain viable’
Claims that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been laughed off as conspiracy theories – but the researchers suggest in the letter that the ‘hypotheses’ cannot be ruled out until there is more evidence
David Arnold Relman, left, and Jesse D. Bloom, right, organized the letter for the Science journal which said that the Wuhan lab escape theory can’t be ruled out yet
‘Anyone who asserts a strong opinion one way or another can’t really be basing it on a whole lot of good data,’ he said.
He added: ‘Let’s try to refrain from offering speculation where we really don’t have a basis for it, especially when we’re trying to maintain our credibility has purveyors of good science.’
The letter reads that ‘yet more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic.’
‘Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks,’ the letter reads.
The letter blasts the World Health Organization and China for their recent joint study investigating the origins of COVID-19, saying that the theory it came from the lab was ‘not given balanced consideration’ to the theory it came from natural spillover.
The report concluded that it was ‘likely to very likely’ that a bat had infected an intermediate host but said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ it was the result of a laboratory accident.
‘The information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis,’ the letter reads, suggesting China had a conflict of interest.
The letter noted that ‘only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident.’
‘A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest,’ the letter reads.
The researchers demanded public health agencies and research laboratories alike to open their records to the public.
Shi Zhengli, the chief scientist for emerging disease at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, called the letter ‘not acceptable’ in an email to the MIT Technology Review.
‘Who can provide an evidence that does not exist? It’s really sad to read this ‘Letter’ written by these 18 prominent scientists,’ she wrote in her email.
A laboratory technician working on samples from people to be tested for the new coronavirus at “Fire Eye” laboratory in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province in February 2020
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is about 20 miles from the Huanan Seafood Market where the first coronavirus cases are reported to have occurred
She said the leak hypothesis is ‘just based on the expertise of a lab which has long been working on bat coronaviruses.’
‘This kind of claim will definitely damage the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists who are dedicated to work on the novel animal viruses which have potential spillover risk to human populations and eventually weaken the ability of humans to prevent the next pandemic,’ she wrote.
Relman told the MIT Technology Review that the new letter could get Democrats and the White House ‘to join the questioning about the origin of COVID-19.’
Last February, during the emergence of the pandemic, The Lancet published a letter from a group of 27 prominent public health scientists that pushed back on suggestions that the virus had come from the Wuhan lab.
‘The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,’ that letter reads.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has dismissed the belief from former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield who says he believes that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan lab.
Redfield had said in an interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta that his opinion was that the coronavirus had spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and that it had been spreading in China for months before it was detected.
‘I’m of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory. Escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,’ Redfield said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissed the belief from former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield who had claimed that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab
The former director of the CDC , Robert Redfield, says he believes COVID-19 ‘escaped’ from a lab in Wuhan and may have been circling since September 2019
Fauci, however, shot down those claims when asked about them at a White House COVID-19 briefing – noting that if the virus had been circulating for months it would make the assertion that it came from a lab less likely.
‘So when you think about the possibilities of how this virus appeared in the human population, obviously there are a number of theories,’ Fauci said in the briefing.
‘The issue that would have someone think it’s possible to have escaped from a lab would mean that it essentially entered the outside human population already well adapted to humans, suggesting that it was adapted in the lab.’
However, Fauci said that most public health officials believe that the virus was actually circulating in China for a month or more before they were clinically recognized at the end of December 2019.
‘If that were the case, the virus clearly could have adapted itself to a greater efficiency of transmissibility over that period of time up to and at the time it was recognized,’ Fauci said.
‘So, Dr. Redfield was mentioning that he was giving an opinion as to a possibility. But, again, there are other alternatives — others that most people hold by.’
Prominent biologists who signed the letter
- Jesse D. Bloom: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
- Yujia Alina Chan: Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
- Ralph S. Baric: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Pamela J. Bjorkman: California Institute of Technology
- Sarah Cobey: University of Chicago
- Benjamin E. Deverman: Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
- David N. Fisman: University of Toronto
- Ravindra Gupta: Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease
- Akiko Iwasaki: Yale University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
- Marc Lipsitch: Harvard University
- Ruslan Medzhitov: Yale University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
- Richard A. Neher: University of Basel and Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics
- Rasmus Nielsen: University of California, Berkeley
- Nick Patterson: Harvard University
- Tim Stearns: Stanford University
- Erik van Nimwegen: University of Basel and Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics
- Michael Worobey: University of Arizona, Tucson
- David A. Relman: Stanford University School of Medicine