My engagement with the Covid origins question began in early January of 2020, when my network of biodefence experts, policymakers and practitioners began exchanging notes on the ‘mysterious lung infection’ in Wuhan. A naturally suspicious group, it wasn’t long before questions were privately raised about potential accidental or deliberate origins. This wasn’t conspiratorial. It is standard practice for critical scholars trained to interrogate the information or narratives presented to them; it is even more so for a group where most come with intelligence, defence and national security backgrounds.
Indeed, my initial public commentary on Covid focused on rejecting conspiracy theories and disinformation linking the outbreak to bioweapons. Be sceptical of these rumours, I said in January, “they’re politically, not factually, motivated.” But even though the false narratives were exposed in reputable, high-profile media outlets, the conspiracy theories persisted, pushed by the Trump administration as well as “at senior political levels, most prominently from Iran but also from Russia and to some extents China,” as I remarked in March and later detailed in a policy brief. The false narratives were rightly rejected by journalists and their editors, academics and the wider policy community. Yet, a most unfortunate by-product of the pushback was that it did not leave open even the remotest possibility of a non-natural origin. To my mind, the pendulum swung too far. However unlikely, it was important that the possibility of a lab leak was brought to the table.
In late April, I wrote an article laying out the circumstantial evidence for a possible lab leak—the high–risk research on coronaviruses going on in Wuhan labs; accidents happening all the time in biolabs and China’s poor record on biosafety; the Chinese Communist Party’s extreme efforts to control the origins narrative and its severe suppression of medical, media and scientific whistle-blowers. Two weeks later, as the World Health Assembly met for their annual meeting where they would agree to an international origins investigation, I published a follow-up article, outlining what a credible investigation would need to look like. I later joined forces with colleagues at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey to produce a more substantial guide to investigating infectious disease outbreaks of international concern, focusing particularly on the ability to differentiate between natural and laboratory sources.
I never argued a lab leak was more likely than a natural origin, but simply that it needed to be part of the investigation equation. Yet, with concerns about feeding a rumour mill used by the Trump administration to shift blame for its response to the pandemic, it was an uncomfortable argument to make. “The way the Trump administration is pushing this theory means we almost can’t look into it because we’re seen as in league with Trump,” I told journalist Gilles Whittell of the British slow news outlet Tortoise in June. It was also uncomfortable because many peers and mainstream experts, worried about any association with Trump, rejected alternative origins possibilities outright as conspiracy theories. As I told Whittell: “There are researchers who really should know better who’ve written off lab leaks as a possibility…We weren’t allowing ourselves to be the sceptical researchers that we should be.” Alina Chan told a similar story of ‘science or censorship?’ in a September article of Boston Magazine.
As critical researchers, we are often counter-current. And, sometimes, that means we end up in uncomfortable spaces. In this case, my work ended up supporting the same narrative that the Trump administration was pushing, albeit for very different reasons. But my work also went against the heavily-vested interests of scientists, funders and publishers supporting potentially pandemic virus research—including some very established PIs, the NIH and the WHO—and it is here I hope my work will have more lasting impact. Because beyond whether the pandemic resulted from natural spillover or laboratory research, the origins question feeds into bigger societal debates that we still need to have about the sorts of risks we’re willing to take in the name of research. What are the implications of more and more high-containment facilities being built globally? Does a majority of stakeholders feel that lab-manipulations of potentially pandemic pathogens is justified? Do the benefits of virus hunting outweigh the risks? Can we even do adequate risk v benefit assessments when both risks and benefits are uncertain?
It is easy to point fingers at others, including Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, for politicising the Covid origins discussion, and diminishing any hope of a credible international investigation. The difficult work is taking a hard look in the mirror. As I told both The Sunday Times and The Wall Street Journal, it is our own virologists, funders and publishers who are driving and endorsing the practice of actively hunting for viruses and the high-risk research of deliberately making viruses more dangerous to humans. We must be more open about the heavily vested interests of some of the scientists given prominent platforms to make claims about the pandemic’s origins. Going forward, we need an inclusive debate about the risks we’re willing to take as a society in the name of research that may, but more likely will not, lead to unknown medical benefits.
Dr Filippa Lentzos is a Senior Lecturer in Science & International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She is also an Associate Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI); a biosecurity columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; and Co-Chair of the new IEEESA Industry Connections program on ‘Driving responsible innovation of AI, life sciences and next generation biotech.’ For more about her work see www.filippalentzos.com or follow her on twitter: @FilippaLentzos