Lessons from the COVID-19 origin debate: The need for stricter lab security measures

By Natalie Kruvant | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published March 31, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 origin debate has intensified in the past few weeks. New genetic material has been linked to the original COVID-19 outbreak.

  • President Biden has called for the declassification of intelligence surrounding COVID-19's origin.

  • Even though the origin is still unknown, a call for better lab security has arisen.

The debate on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified in the last few weeks. 

Earlier this month, genetic material collected from the Wuhan wet market at the time of the original COVID-19 outbreak was discovered on a Munich-based data system called GISAID. However, since the discovery of the genetic material, GISAID has removed access to the data, causing an outcry from international experts and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

In a report released last week, scientists raced to understand the genetic material they had been able to review. The report noted that SARS-CoV-2 samples were present alongside animal species in the market. The report called into question raccoon dogs, which are related to foxes.[] These raccoon dogs were present at the market and are known carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.[]

This follows President Biden's decision last week to sign a bipartisan bill to declassify as much information as possible surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of better understanding the virus's origins.[] 

According to the WHO, close to 7 million people have died worldwide due to COVID-19.[] 

“We need to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins to help ensure we can better prevent future pandemics. My Administration will continue to review all classified information relating to COVID-19’s origins, including potential links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said President Biden in a statement.[] 

The COVID-19 origin debate  

Even with discussing this newly discovered genetic material, it is hard to say where the virus originated from definitively. In an updated report released this week, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) stated that no virus was detected in the swabs taken from the 18 animal species at the market.

William Schaffner, MD., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), explains that the fact that both genetic material from animals and the virus were both found at the market adds to the evidence that COVID-19 may have originated in nature and shows that the market was at the very least an accelerating location for the virus. 

This is further incidental information that the virus originated in animals, but it doesn’t prove anything, Schaffner tells MDLinx. 

The origin factor question still remains hard to pin down due to a general lack of transparency and confusion. The lack of direct evidence in the natural world causes some to question if the virus inadvertently escaped a human setting. 

A proponent of this theory is former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade, who also testified in front of congress this month to answer questions about the lab-based theory. 

“You could see all kinds of traces that a virus leaves in nature when it jumps from one species to another, which is usually a very difficult thing for it to do,” Wade tells MDLinx. 

“So it'll make many, many tries, and most of the tries will fail. Then you see, at last, it sort of catching on and creating a mild infection, and then it mutates a bit more and becomes better adapted to humans. And then you have a very strong epidemic,” says Wade.”This is a great big process you can track, and with SARS-2, there's none of that there.” 

According to a recent poll conducted this month, more than 65 percent of Americans believe COVID-19 originated in a lab. But even those backing one theory over another say there needs to be room for pivoting.  

“You must resist tying yourself to one hypothesis. You must keep your mind open to any developments that lead the other way,” says Wade.

Lab security 

Regardless of COVID-19’s origins, the virus sheds important light on lab security as a whole. 

According to a recent report by Kings College London, there are 59 BSL4 labs in operation, in construction, or planned to be developed across the globe. 

These labs deal with the most dangerous samples, including highly contagious viruses like Ebola. They require the highest degree of protective equipment and security. Of these kinds of labs, 75 percent of them exist in cities. 

“If people decide this virus came from a lab, then a whole lot of things need to be changed about how virologists go about their business,” says Wade. “One problem here is that the higher you raise the safety of the lab, the less people want to work under such conditions because it's very expensive, very tedious.”

In a 2018 unredacted cable, it shows that a scientist in a Wuhan laboratory who worked with coronavirus and SARS was denied BSL4 level security. It isn’t clear if this cable has any direct or indirect link to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, some experts like Schaffner say we already have enough information to move forward in an informed way.

“There are lessons here to be learned and there are actionable items that we can take forward. It's always helpful to take a deep breath, step back, and review policies and procedures when it comes to infection control,” says Schaffner. “This is an opportunity for all of us to look at our laboratory infection control policies and procedures. We don't need to wait for a final answer if we'll ever get one. We can take that and go forward with it right now.”

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