The letter, which was curated by Stanford University microbiologist David Relman and University of Washington virologist Jesse Bloom, targets a recent joint study on the origins of covides undertaken by the World Health Organization and China, which concluded that a bat virus has likely reached humans. via an intermediate animal and a laboratory accident “extremely unlikely.”
This conclusion was not scientifically justified, according to the authors of the new letter, because no trace of how the virus first jumped to humans has been found and the possibility of a laboratory accident received only a cursory glimpse. Only a handful of the 313 pages of the WHO Origins Report and its annexes are devoted to this subject.
Marc Lipsitch, a well-known Harvard University epidemiologist who is among the signatories of the letter, said he had expressed no opinion on the origin of the virus until recently, choosing instead to focus on improving the design of epidemiological studies and vaccine trials. in part because the debate over laboratory theory has become so controversial. “I stayed out of this because I was busy dealing with the outcome of the pandemic rather than its origin,” he says. “[But] when the WHO publishes a report that makes a specious claim on an important subject… it is worth speaking out. “
Several of those who signed the letter, including Lipsitch and Relman, have in the past called for a more in-depth review of ‘gain-of-function’ research, in which viruses are genetically engineered to make them more infectious or virulent. Experiments to design pathogens were also underway at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s main center for the study of bat viruses. Some see the fact that covid-19 first appeared in the same town where the lab is located as circumstantial evidence that a lab accident could be to blame.
Lipsitch already has estimated the risk of a pandemic caused by the accidental release of a high-security biological laboratory between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000 per year, and he warned that the proliferation of thousands of such laboratories around the world is a major concern .
Even though Chinese scientists have said that no such leak occurred in this case, the letter’s authors say this can only be established through a more independent investigation. “An appropriate investigation must be transparent, objective, data-driven, include broad expertise, subject to independent oversight and managed responsibly to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest,” they write. “Public health agencies and research laboratories must open their files to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of the data from which analyzes are conducted and conclusions drawn. “
The chief scientist for emerging diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, said in an email that the letter’s suspicions were misplaced and would hurt the world’s ability to respond to pandemics. “It’s definitely not acceptable,” Shi said of the group’s call to see his lab’s records. “Who can provide proof that does not exist?”
“It is really sad to read this ‘Letter’ written by these 18 eminent scientists.” Shi wrote in his email. “This type of claim will certainly hurt the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists who are dedicated to working on new animal viruses that pose a potential risk of spillover into human populations and ultimately weaken the ability of humans to prevent the next one.” pandemic.
The discussion around the laboratory leak hypothesis has already become highly political. In the United States, it has been adopted most strongly by Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The resulting polarization has had a chilling effect on scientists, some of whom have been reluctant to voice their own concerns, says Relman.
“We felt motivated to say something because the science is not living up to what it can be, which is a very fair, rigorous and open effort to get greater clarity on something” , he said. “For me, part of the goal was to create a safe space for other scientists to say something on their own.”
“Ideally, this is a relatively uncontroversial call to be as lucid as possible in testing several viable hypotheses for which we have little data,” says Megan Palmer, biosafety expert at Stanford University. which is not affiliated with the group of letters. “When politics are complex and the stakes are high, a reminder from eminent experts may be what is needed to compel others to be carefully considered.”