More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the virus causing the disease remains uncertain. The predominant theory is that its emergence in human populations was the result of zoonotic transmission, via an as-yet to be determined animal host. A competing (if still marginal) theory holds that a more likely source of the initial outbreak was an accidental release of the virus from a laboratory – specifically, the Wuhan Institute for Virology, where gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses was being conducted. A third – still more marginal – theory has recently been proposed, that the virus initially spread to China from elsewhere via packaged frozen food.
On the one hand, the search for origins is a forensic investigation, an attempt to locate a site of blame for a potentially avoidable catastrophe. This effort has not made much progress, at least to judge from results of the recent WHO-led investigation. But the search also points forward to investment in prevention and preparedness measures. As one prominent biosecurity expert has argued, “Preventing the next pandemic depends on understanding the origins of this one.” The diagnosis of past failure is at the same time a claim on resources for the future. If the origin is a zoonotic spillover event, that would point toward investment in improved wildlife surveillance, and toward increased support of basic research in virology—for instance, gain-of-function research to understand the evolution of virulence and transmissibility. On the other hand, if the source of the pandemic turns out to be an accidental leak from a laboratory where such research was being performed, future pandemic preparedness measures might well point in a very different direction: toward a public conversation on the risks of gain-of-function research, toward less rather than more funding for it, indeed toward possible restrictions on such research.
Despite the high stakes of the answer to the question of origins, there has so far been surprisingly little public discussion of the issue. With the appearance of several recent media reports on the search for origins, and with the conclusion of the WHO investigation, the moment may at hand for a more considered reflection. The premise of this forum is that scholars in the critical human sciences with expertise in disease ecology, biosecurity practices, and the institutional structure of the cosmopolitan biosciences can make a distinctive contribution to such a conversation.
The forum does not seek to weigh in on the question of the actual origins of SARS-CoV-2. Rather, it asks about the stakes of the question today. In what sense does it matter where SARS-CoV-2 came from? What role does an origin story play in shaping research and policy directions going forward? How are concepts of risk, causality, and responsibility invoked in the discussion of origins? And what might we learn from this case about the institutional and funding structure of cosmopolitan science – and its relation to geopolitics?
The Role of Critical Researchers in the COVID Origins Controversy
King’s College London
Chinese COVID science and its ‘cosmopolitan anxieties’
University of Kent
This forum was edited by Andrew Lakoff, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Unprepared: Global Health in a Time of Emergency (University of California Press, 2017), and, with Stephen J. Collier, The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (Princeton University Press, 2021).
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