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‘We still don’t have the full jigsaw’: What you need to know about the Wuhan ‘lab leak’ theory

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, two primary theories have circulated about its origin.

Many scientists imagine that SARS-CoV-2 – like different viruses belonging to the beta-coronaviruses household – has a pure origin and was transmitted from bats to individuals, doubtless by way of an unknown middleman. 

This theory was broadly accepted at the begin of the pandemic, and assessed by the World Health Organization earlier this yr as a “likely” state of affairs. 

But lately, a second theory – that the virus leaked from a laboratory – has gained traction, regardless of no new scientific proof rising. The WHO group had beforehand concluded such a state of affairs was “extremely unlikely”. 

There is way at stake when it comes to pinpointing the supply of the outbreak – as well as to serving to forestall future pandemics, discovering the origin of COVID-19 may additionally have a significant influence on worldwide relations. 

“We don’t have the full jigsaw yet,” says University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay. 

The natural emergence theory

Professor Dominic Dwyer, the NSW director of public health pathology, travelled to the Chinese city of Wuhan as part of a World Health Organization delegation in January.

Tasked with investigating the cause of the pandemic, he says there were two main parts to their mission.  

“One was to try and review what had actually happened based on the evidence we were given, and to see, based on that evidence, what would be the most to the least likely of the various hypotheses,” he informed SBS News. 

“The second part is then to say, what further work needs to be done to solve this? You can’t do this work in four weeks – this is something that could take years, based on our experience of other diseases.” 

Professor Dwyer inspects the Huanan wet market in Wuhan.

Professor Dwyer inspects the Huanan moist market in Wuhan.


Following the delayed visit, tightly-controlled by its Chinese hosts, the WHO team concluded the most likely scenario was the virus jumped from bats into humans via an intermediate animal – a process known as “zoonosis”. 

History tells us this is a “tried and true process,” Professor Dwyer says. 

“Plenty of other viruses have gone down this pathway before, including the original SARS and MERS, which are coronaviruses that have come across into humans,” he said. 

“Nearly all human viruses identified in the last 40 or 50 years have come from animals in one form or another, and bats are a major contributor. So, there’s a history there and it’s well documented.” 

Professor Mackay said there is substantial evidence of “natural spillovers” due to farming practices and other ways humans are exposed the viruses carried by animals. 

“We have lots of evidence that spillovers happen like this all the time. Most of the time, they probably happen and don’t go any further – they’re the end of that transmission chain,” he told SBS News. 

“This time, it wasn’t the case – like it wasn’t the case when when SARS took off.” 

Marion Koopmans and Peter Ben Embarek of the WHO team farewell their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannianin in Wuhan, China, 9 February 2021.

Marion Koopmans and Peter Ben Embarek of the WHO group farewell their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannianin in Wuhan, China, 9 February 2021.


Chinese authorities reported many of the first cases of COVID-19 occurred in a wet market in Wuhan.

Wuhan is also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese government-backed lab with expertise in coronavirus research. 

“A wet market scenario – where you have animals that are potentially infected by bats under enormous stress in cages, and there’s a lot of people around often in crowded locations – is a perfect recipe for an outbreak,” Professor Dwyer said. 

While researchers have some leads supporting this theory, researchers are yet to pinpoint the animal intermediary responsible for transferring the virus to humans. 

“Well, no animal has been identified, but then we hadn’t found the animal that was the original source of SARS for quite some time. It took a while to get there. That’s just a matter of sampling a lot of animals, doing a lot of that work,” Professor Mackay said.  

The laboratory leak theory

On Sunday, world leaders attending the G7 summit released a communique calling for a “clear, expert-led and science-based” phase two COVID-19 origin study to be convened by the WHO in China. 

It followed US President Joe Biden’s order last month for national intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the virus’s origins, including “whether or not it emerged from human contact with an contaminated animal or from a laboratory accident”. 

“As of today, the US intelligence community has coalesced around two likely scenarios but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question,” he mentioned.

Speaking to reporters at the G7 summit, Mr Biden mentioned transparency mattered. 

“Transparency matters across the board. And I think the idea that, for example, one of the things I raised – and others raised, I wasn’t the only one who raised this piece of it – is that we don’t know,” he mentioned. 

“We haven’t had access to the laboratories to determine whether or not – I’ve not reached a conclusion because our intelligence community is not certain whether or not this was a consequence of a – [from] the marketplace, of bat interfacing with animals in the environment that caused this… or whether it was an experiment gone awry in laboratory.”

Mr Biden’s feedback seem to additionally sign a diplomatic escalation of the subject, with the United States utilizing the COVID-19 investigation to exert strain on China as tensions between the nations rise.  

They additionally adopted experiences, citing US intelligence, that three researchers from the Wuhan institute had been hospitalised with a flu-like sickness in November 2019, one month earlier than China reported the first COVID-19 case. 

John Lee, a senior fellow at the US Studies Centre, mentioned “circumstantial evidence” for the lab leak theory has existed from the begin, however was shortly dismissed by elements of the US authorities and by the media. 

“One of the reasons why is because it was the preferred explanation of former president Donald Trump,” he informed SBS News. 

“That shouldn’t have a bearing on how credible or not credible the theory is, but it has been politicised – initially by Donald Trump, and also by those who didn’t like Donald Trump.”

Mr Lee mentioned Mr Biden’s order is “recognition that we don’t know the source but both those theories have credible aspects to them that need to be investigated”. 

‘You need evidence to take the science further’

Proponents of the lab leak theory have raised various sometimes-spurious arguments. 

These embody that the particular supply has not but been recognized, and that the virus was first detected in Wuhan – the similar metropolis the place the institute of virology can also be situated.

The issue with this theory, Professor Dwyer says, is that there’s little or no agency proof. 

“There have been suggestions about a whole range of different scenarios, including a deliberate or accidental leak, but the trouble with that is you have to be able to unpack that,” he mentioned. 

“You need evidence to take the science further.” 

He mentioned one flaw in the theory is there is no such thing as a proof of COVID-19 at the Wuhan institute earlier than the pandemic. 

“If you have a lab leak, you would have to have had the virus in the lab, and nobody has discussed that. Laboratories like the one in Wuhan, and others around the world, publish papers on these viruses as quickly as they can – that’s part of the scientific process.” 

The institute reported on a virus that’s the closest-known match to COVID-19 in 2016. 

Some researchers have been investigating whether or not a specific genetic function of COVID-19 recommended it was bioengineered.

Professor Dwyer mentioned this wasn’t the case.

“It’s actually present in other coronaviruses as well, including MERS,” he mentioned. 

Professor Mackay agreed that related genetic options had been already current in different viruses. 

“Again, it’s probably a case of us not sampling enough of these viruses yet,” he mentioned. 

As for the location of the institute in Wuhan, Professor Mackay cautioned drawing easy conclusions. 

“It could just be where that lab is, studying the things that are most relevant,” he said.

People run along the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, as the city marks the first anniversary of China confirming its first COVID-19 death.

People run alongside the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, as the metropolis marks the first anniversary of China confirming its first COVID-19 demise.

Getty Images

What now? 

Right now, there is no definitive conclusion and both theories remain on the table. 

“I think we have to keep an open mind until we have more evidence than we do now,” Professor Mackay said. 

“You don’t exclude these ideas, but you want to try and understand how they might arise and whether in the process of arising like that, that it makes sense,” Professor Dwyer added. 

“The damage with all of this is it stops cooperation and collaboration – that’s how you solve scientific problems. And it can take time.”

A group of scientists have also joined calls for further investigation, penning a letter published in the journal Science last month. 

“[M]ore investigation is still wanted to decide the origin of the pandemic. Theories of unintended launch from a lab and zoonotic spillover each stay viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is crucial for informing world methods to mitigate the threat of future outbreaks,” the letter said. 

Mr Lee believes further open, transparent investigation is unlikely – “simply because it won’t be allowed by China”. 

“What I think will happen then is the circumstantial evidence will increasingly be put out there. The battle going on now is really about who carries the burden of proof – Beijing or outside entities?”

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