On November 1, SDSN and the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University (CSD) hosted the first of three webinars to further discussions on the Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s findings and recommendations presented in their final report, The Lancet Commission on lessons for the future from COVID-19. The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, which ran from July 2020 to October 2022, was an interdisciplinary initiative encompassing the health sciences, business, finance and public policy. From 2020 – 2022, the Commissioners and Task Forces focused on four main themes: (1) recommendations on how to best suppress the epidemic; (2) addressing the humanitarian crises arising from the pandemic; (3) addressing the financial and economic crises resulting from the pandemic; and (4) rebuilding an inclusive, fair, and sustainable world.
The webinar on Origins of the Pandemic offered an open dialogue on both the zoonotic and research-related origins hypotheses of the origin of SARS-CoV-2; the need for an unbiased, independent, transparent, and rigorous investigation into both theories; and the need for biosafety regulations to prevent research-associated outbreaks.
Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Chair of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, highlighted the Commission’s conclusion that there are two leading viable hypotheses – that the virus emerged from a zoonotic spillover from wildlife or a farm animal, or that the virus emerged from a research-related incident – and that neither hypothesis has been fully investigated nor dispositively proven. He stressed that regulatory oversight lags far behind the realities of the research on pathogens of pandemic potential and highlighted his concern that there has not been a transparent public discussion on both theories of origins.
Dr. Alina Chan of the Broad Institute and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 outlined the state of the debate: “The science has been clear since day one that we just don’t know.” She expressed her concern that the debate about the origins of COVID-19 has become more about politics than anything else. In her remarks, Dr. Chan described how the virus may have ended up in humans from its undisputed ancestral bat origin. She first described the natural origins theory, which would require infection of an intermediate animal species or a person exposed to bats to trigger the outbreak, and the research-related theory, which would require infection of a scientist collecting pathogens from bats or intermediate animal species, or an accident in lab research on viruses with pandemic potential.
Dr. Chan then reviewed key evidence that scientists and investigators look for when tracking the natural origin of a pathogen, as was done for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). She described the absence of evidence for an intermediate host in Wuhan markets or its supply chain, despite knowing of the ancestral bat reservoirs in South China and Southeast Asia. She showed the circumstantial evidence for the lab origin hypothesis, including the unique abilities of and ongoing research at a lab in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and pointed out known biosafety issues there. She stressed that although none of the evidence is definitive, it is concerning.
Dr. Richard Ebright, Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University and Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, agreed with Dr. Chan that the available scientific data — the sequence of the viral genome, properties of the virus, and epidemiology of disease — do not enable the assignment of probabilities to the natural or research-related origins hypotheses. However, he suggested that other available data – including the existence of gain of function and enhanced pandemic potential pathogen research performed by EcoHealth Alliance with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the inadequate biosafety precautions used in their research, and their lack of transparency and cooperation with investigation – meet or exceed the standard of ‘probable cause’ for a research-related spillover.
Dr. Ebright called for a comprehensive independent forensic investigation of COVID-19 origins, pursuing lines of evidence both inside and outside China, including funding and collaboration with US institutions. He strongly recommended restriction and regulation of wildlife markets and wildlife farming to reduce likelihood of future pandemics of natural origin, and restriction and regulation of wildlife virus discovery research and gain-of-function research to prevent future research-related pandemics.
Most importantly, Dr. Ebright explained the particulars of biosafety, biosecurity, and bio-risk management: biosafety is protection against accidental release, biosecurity is protection against deliberate release, and bio-risk management is a risk-benefit assessment of high-risk research. He outlined strategies for each of these and the standards for each level of biosafety. Dr. Ebright raised the alarm that in the US context there is poor oversight and almost no regulation of biosafety measures that carries force of law.
Ms. Emily Kopp, an investigative journalist from US Right to Know (USRTK), has been gaining access to information that the US government and others did not release through dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. In her presentation, Ms. Kopp repeatedly emphasized that there has been a lack of transparency from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other major actors regarding the high-risk research that has been ongoing in the US and abroad. She voiced her concerns about the credibility and integrity of leading institutions and individuals in the US, concluding, “The public deserves more clarity about the pandemic’s early days.”
Ms. Kopp described the extensive collaboration among labs and organizations in the US and labs in China on world-leading high-risk virology research, much of which had been underwritten by NIH and EcoHealth Alliance. According to Ms. Kopp, more than 1000 documents and progress reports from NIH and EcoHealth have still not been released.
Ms. Kopp described some of the creative ways that USRTK is looking for information that has not been made available. She mentioned publicly funded databases that have been taken down, are incomplete, or that have deleted information, like the PREDICT database from NIAID and the NIH archive of partial viral sequences from which over 100,000 partial sequences have been deleted. Ms. Kopp said that the chief obstacle is not a lack of data.
Ms. Kopp underscored the enormous impact on public opinion of early writings in prominent journals including Nature Medicine and The Lancet that condemned lab-related origins of COVID-19 as conspiracy theory. She challenged the integrity of the virologists on the Nature Medicine correspondence paper (“Proximal Origins”) regarding how that highly influential paper came together.
In the discussion section of the webinar, former Commissioners of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission were invited to ask questions to the panelists. Dr. Ismail Serageldin highlighted that regardless of the true origins of COVID-19, high-risk research can be and continues to be conducted. Therefore, a primary consideration to avoid future pandemics is to completely reconsider the biosafety regulations and supervision under which this type of research occurs. Dr. Ebright agreed, stating, “After every plane crash, after every train derailment, there is an investigation, and crucially, measures are taken to reduce the risk of recurrence. That has not happened in this case.”
Prof. Phoebe Koundouri asked whether a thorough, transparent, and serious investigation would provide a definitive answer to the origins, and whether there have been investigations into the research done in the European Union in line with biosafety regulations. She asked if there is a possible correlation between the apparently lower rate of accidents and biosafety issues in Europe compared with the less-supervised environment in the US or other regions. Dr. Chan responded that these questions are unanswered, but the Pathogens Project of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been established to understand if there are already effective oversight systems in some countries and if all countries can be incentivized to properly and prudently regulate research that is potentially dangerous.
Issues of transparency featured heavily in the discussion, as the panelists probed the reasons for the heavy redaction and delayed release of FOIA documents from NIH. Ms. Kopp surmised that journalists may be intimidated to push against the prevailing narrative of the natural origins theory due to their lack of sufficient scientific knowledge, their respect for leading scientists, and the anti-science attitudes that have taken hold in the US. She reiterated, however, that an accurate account of what has happened comes down to the integrity of participating scientists and journalists.
Questions raised by audience members asked Dr. Ebright to explain the intersection of the gain-of-function coronavirus research with biodefense and/or bioweapons. Dr. Ebright clarified the distinctions between biodefense (preparedness for and countermeasures against bioweapons threats), bioweapon agents (pathogens or biological toxins that could be used as a bioweapon), and bioweapons (an agent developed and produced for use as a bioweapon). He stated that all research discussed in the webinar was performed explicitly as biodefense research, and funded as such, to identify and create new bioweapons agents for which preparedness can begin. This research poses material risks of accidental or purposeful release and creates information risks through the creation of new “recipes” for bioweapons agents. Ms. Kopp agreed, saying that there is a perception problem, because doing research to prepare to defend can sometimes resemble creating biological threats and doing unnecessary high-risk research.
Dr. Chan lamented that the panel was missing the voices of natural origin proponents, who were invited but chose not to come. Both she and Prof. Sachs emphasized the need for an open discussion to elicit a proper understanding by the public and the scientific community. Ms. Kopp ended her remarks with a call to action to other reporters on the line, saying that she welcomes journalistic competition and that everyone needs to help this investigation, as it is a complex story.
All participants concluded that further investigation of both hypotheses (natural spillover and research-related spillover) is urgently needed. The panelists made clear that a lot of key information needed for this investigation is available in the United States and other countries, and that we need open discussion, transparency, and integrity to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.