The Origin of COVID-19 and Preventing the Next Pandemic
Did COVID-19 originate with bats or scientists? Most experts continue to contend that the most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is a natural zoonotic “spillover” event between an animal reservoir (most likely bats) and humans. But over the last year of the pandemic, another theory has gained momentum: The SARS-CoV-2 virus may have resulted from an accident in a laboratory in China where scientists were working with closely related viruses. In the wake of the World Health Organization-led mission to Wuhan to examine the origins of the pandemic, proponents of the lab-leak theory have charged the investigative team with conflicts of interest, and suggested that the team’s efforts failed to rule out the possibility of a lab release. Some have gone on to claim that scientists have maintained a conspiracy of silence about the possibility of a lab release in order to protect their funding or avoid a backlash from their government.
The desire to identify the origins of the novel coronavirus is perfectly understandable. COVID-19 has killed millions of people and upended everyday life. There’s an intuitive sense that finding out how the pandemic began might help to prevent another one from occurring. The Biden administration is redoubling efforts to determine the origins of COVID-19 after the intelligence community indicated that it had insufficient information to make a determination.
However, while answering the question of where the novel coronavirus came from is important, many of the most important policy decisions the United States needs to make to prevent future pandemics do not depend on viral origins. Very little about pandemic response or preparedness for future pandemics turns on the particulars of how this one started. Laboratory biosafety was already an issue before the pandemic, and the origins of this particular virus don’t change the need for reform to prevent these rare but potentially catastrophic events. Regardless of how COVID-19 began, U.S. policy priorities should focus on both identifying and preventing the spread of zoonotic pathogens and bolstering safety and security in high-containment laboratories.
Preparing for the Next Pandemic
Whatever the origins of this pandemic, the United States has its work cut out to prepare for the next one. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the lab hypothesis is true. Efforts to prepare for natural spillover events do not then become less important. Since the 1940s, roughly 350 emerging infectious diseases have been identified. Of these, nearly three-quarters have zoonotic origins. Our understanding of how such diseases emerge is incomplete, but we know that there are a number of human behaviors that are likely contributing to this pattern: increasing demand for animal protein, factory farming and other agricultural intensification measures, wildlife trade, urbanization, extraction industries, changes in the food supply chain, and pet ownership, as well as increases in temperature, humidity, and other factors related to global climate change. Zoonotic crossover events are not limited to China, or even to Asia. Emerging infectious diseases have appeared all over the world: Zika in Latin America, Ebola virus disease in sub-Saharan Africa, H1N1 in bird reservoirs as disparate as Vietnam or Mexico; and henipaviruses in Australia. Coronaviruses have reservoirs in China, yes, but also in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
If investigators are able to conclusively prove that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory conducting research into coronaviruses, humanity will continue to confront the risk that a future spillover will result in another pandemic that is equally or more devastating. Fortunately, there are steps that the scientific community can take to manage this risk, including using predictive surveillance and developing other zoonotic risk-assessment tools. Early detection of such pathogens can help experts to isolate and contain them so that they do not spread widely. We can also promote behavioral change in high-risk populations and fund research into universal vaccines for zoonotic frequent-flyers like coronaviruses.
Let’s say the converse is true, however. If evidence is found that satisfies even the most ardent lab-leak proponent that COVID-19 originated in an animal population, does that obviate the need to address laboratory biosafety and biosecurity? Absolutely not. Even as COVID-19 emerged, questions arose about the role of high-containment labs around the world. As the number of these labs increases, the risk of a consequential accident also increases.
Policymakers have debated biological safety in high-containment labs for most of this century. Biosafety, biosecurity, and awareness-raising among life scientists are ongoing topics of discussion at the Biological Weapons Convention. Biosafety is a major focus in the Global Health Security Agenda. The World Health Organization has maintained a guide for the responsible conduct of life sciences research with dual-use potential for more than a decade. In short, biosafety and biosecurity receive significant policymaker attention at the highest levels of international organizations, but that awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into national-level action to manage biological risk and ensure protection from accidents. Even the states that have been most vocal in driving discussion of biosafety and biosecurity in international spheres have struggled with their own biorisk management. The United States has had a number of high profile laboratory incidents over the years, involving anthrax, highly pathogenic avian influenza, and smallpox, even as it has continued to develop and expand its high-containment lab capacity — already the largest in the world.
Transparency and Biosecurity
Critics might claim that lab releases in the United States can be investigated transparently, while the potential COVID-19 release in China cannot. Indeed, China has put severe restrictions on research into the origins of the virus and prohibited scientists from speaking with journalists. During the World Health Organization-led investigation, members of the team were prevented from accessing patient data and other important research. After Australia pressed for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, China responded with threats and economic retaliation.
However, opacity surrounding public health is not a problem that is limited to authoritarian societies like China. Globally, biosafety norms are poorly implemented and reviews of biosafety and biosecurity are often conducted in secret. Even in the United States, there is no coordinated approach to laboratory biosafety or reporting laboratory accidents. As a result, public awareness of biosafety incidents often relies on local engagement between towns and specific labs, or comes from journalists filing Freedom of Information requests. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has consistently criticized U.S. biological security and safety for decades, but even recent developments in regulating the funding of potentially high-consequence “gain of function” research have been criticized as lacking transparency around the makeup of the review board, decision-making procedure, and notification of funded experiments. If this is the case for the United States, it is easy to imagine that other countries with less experience with biosafety and security might see it as politically advantageous to remain mum about incidents or problems. Clearly, more work is needed around the world to make sure that all countries have biorisk management policies and appropriate oversight measures in place, and that they’re open about the problems they encounter and their efforts to solve them.
Global norms and incentives are where the rubber hits the road for pandemic preparedness. It’s reasonable — in fact, vital — to seek new ways to prevent laboratory accidents in the future. The world’s chief solution to this pandemic was the development of vaccines, a process driven by life sciences research, much of which took place in high-containment labs. Consequently, many political leaders may well choose to invest in more high-level biological research in the near future. If the solution to a lab release is more laboratory science, it makes sense to ensure that that science is carried out in a safe and secure manner. There is room for all countries to do better, and the United States should consider revitalizing its approach to promoting biosafety and biosecurity in the wake of the pandemic — regardless of its origins.
As a final point, if the lab release hypothesis is true, we really shouldn’t be surprised. An analysis in 2016 of gain of function research by Gryphon Scientific operated on the assumption that, eventually, a laboratory release of a potential pandemic pathogen would occur, a small number of those would lead to a local cluster, and a small number of those would seed a global pandemic. In other words, if COVID-19 did result from a lab release in China, it might simply have been bad luck, on top of whatever biosafety lapses China may have had — which is all the more reason why, in addition to strengthening laboratory safety and security, the international community should do everything it can to develop appropriate infrastructure to handle a future pandemic.
There is one important scenario in which it would be absolutely vital to know the origins of COVID-19 in order to decide what to do next. If, as some scientists and politicians have suggested, the pandemic stemmed from a deliberate attempt to develop a biological warfare agent, this would have serious implications for the Biological Weapons Convention and the broader norm against the use of disease as a weapon. If a state party had violated its commitment to the treaty by developing biological weapons, the international community would need to determine how to hold that government accountable for its non-compliance — a process with which states parties to the treaty have struggled in the past. Even treaties that have extensive verification provisions have grappled with what to do when a state party has demonstrably violated a treaty’s prohibitions. While some might criticize the Biological Weapons Convention for lacking a mechanism to verify compliance, such mechanisms don’t solve the knotty political problem of what to do when flagrant violations take place. Moreover, the deliberate use of biological weapons could inspire copycat behavior by others, leading to the weakening of the norm against the use of disease as a weapon. Fortunately, to our knowledge no serious analysis of COVID-19’s origins — even from those who support a laboratory release hypothesis — has concluded that anyone deliberately introduced the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the global population.
While it’s important to discover the origins of the pandemic, there’s a danger in taking these efforts too far. Some have argued that conclusively demonstrating the pandemic’s origins in a lab release might help nations seeking to encourage China to pay financial reparations for the global economic cost of the virus to make their case. This could be a problematic approach. Not only is there no legal precedent under international law to hold a country liable for a pandemic, but in the long run this might be an unwise road for the United States, given its own history of laboratory accidents and safety lapses. Insisting that China bears responsibility for the pandemic and should be expected to pay compensation to other countries or the families of coronavirus victims could backfire in the future if the United States finds itself attempting to mitigate the consequences from a laboratory accident. Furthermore, legal efforts to blame China could fuel additional xenophobia against Asian-Americans, or even undermine U.S. foreign policy interests.
Meanwhile, the focus on where the virus came from should not divert attention from what’s even more important — preparing for the next pandemic. Political finger-pointing might make it far more difficult for researchers to collaborate internationally on pandemic preparedness efforts. Experts are already noting the possible implications for the National Institutes of Health and other research institutions of the growing tension between the United States and China, exacerbated by the allegations and skepticism around the virus’s origins. This pandemic is far from over, despite the rollout of vaccines in the United States, and new potential pandemic diseases are already testing global health efforts elsewhere in the world. American experts therefore need to keep a laser-like focus on the real enemy: the causative agents of disease.
There will be far more blame to share if the international community becomes so fixated on the circumstances surrounding this unique case that it’s unable to see the big picture and predict or prepare for the next pandemic. There’s work that can be done in that respect while maintaining agnosticism about the origins of COVID-19. Regardless of the source, we need to be better prepared to respond to the next virus.
Amanda Moodie is a policy fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD Center) in Washington, D.C. Her policy support at the center focuses on the international legal regimes that regulate the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. She regularly serves as a member of the U.S. delegation to meetings of the states parties of the Biological Weapons Convention.
Nicholas G. Evans is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he teaches biomedical ethics and security studies. He has been published in the British Medical Journal, Nonproliferation Review, and ELife. His book, The Ethics of Neuroscience and National Security, was released with Routledge in May 2021.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Fei Maohua)