Three years on, Covid lab-leak theories aren’t going away. This is why
Are they just fringe conspiracies—or could they be something more?
In retrospect, a news story published by the science journal Nature in 2015 makes for chilling reading. It reported that scientists in the US had transferred a small piece of the genome from a coronavirus found in bats in China into a variant of Sars-CoV, the virus responsible for the outbreak of the lethal respiratory infection Sars between 2002 and 2003. The added genetic material encoded a so-called spike protein that enabled the Sars-like virus, which had been adapted to infect mice, to infect cells of the human respiratory tract too. “Our work”, wrote the scientists, led by epidemiologist Ralph Baric, “suggests a potential risk of Sars-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.”
“The virus in wild bats would need to evolve to pose any threat to humans,” Nature wrote—“a change that may never happen, although it cannot be ruled out.”
It is now generally accepted that Sars-CoV-2, the virus that caused the Covid pandemic, is a bat coronavirus, closely related to Sars-CoV and able to infect humans—a so-called zoonotic virus, capable of jumping host species—because of its spike protein. Had more attention been paid to the risk that Baric and colleagues identified, might the catastrophe have been avoided?
On the other hand, was it wise for researchers to create in the lab a new way for Sars-like coronaviruses to infect humans? Baric’s experiments provoked alarm from some experts. “If the virus escaped”, virologist Simon Wain-Hobson told Nature back then, “nobody could predict the trajectory.” The work had proceeded despite a 2014 US government moratorium on federal funding of such “gain-of-function” (GOF) research. In this research, potentially pathogenic viruses are given new capabilities by lab-based cultivation or genetic engineering in a way that might increase their infectiousness or virulence in humans, with the aim of identifying and averting the risks posed by such agents of disease. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided, after a review, that Baric’s work was not dangerous enough to fall under the moratorium