The debate on the origin of the virus causing Covid-19 has so far been framed in terms of a failure of biosecurity: it balances the risk of buying live animals in a wet market against the risk of studying zoonotic viruses in a laboratory. As such, it may at first appear to replicate debates that occurred around artificial mutation (or gain-of-function) research on the “bird flu” H5N1 virus in 2012 and around genetic reconstruction (or reverse-engineering) of the “Spanish flu” H1N1 virus in 2005. Given that debates about viral origins are often repetitive and inconclusive, the current discussion of the origins of COVID may well lead to the same recommendation: improve biosecurity in labs and markets to ward off the possibility of future outbreaks of novel pathogens.
But because the debate on the origins of Covid-19 is taking place at a large scale – the mutations of SARS-Cov2 among humans and non-humans – and is exploring all possible scenarios – from natural to artificial emergence – it offers a glimpse into the technologies used to trace the origins of a virus. One year after the first declared cases of Covid-19, virologists and epidemiologists will now use frozen samples from human blood, urban sewage or animal body parts to go back in time. Genetic sequencing will allow them to reverse the “molecular clock” and date the mutations of the “original” zoonotic virus. These technologies of the cold chain, underpinningnorms of biosecurity, inscribe the comparison between a lab and a market in a more general context of viral emergence.
The scenario of the wet market as the site of zoonotic transfer investigates the intermediary species between bats and humans. Wet markets are places where wild and domestic animals are sold for food and medicine consumption. It is estimated that these wet markets provide between 30% and 50% of the meat available to Chinese consumers, who prefer to see live animals as a guarantee for their freshness, because they don’t trust the cold chain in supermarkets. While snakes and pangolins were initially designated by Chinese authorities as potential vehicles of SARS-CoV-2, suspicions have now turned to minks, whose capacity to carry respiratory diseases is higher. After SARS-Cov-2 viruses were found in mink farms in the Netherlands and Denmark, the Danish mink industry, which exported most of its skins to China, was destroyed in December 2020. The production and consumption of mink fur has increased in the Northeast of China in the last decades as a protection from the cold and as a sign of wealth. On January 9, 2021, virologist Shi Zhengli published an article in Science requesting the analysis of samples from mink farms.
However, searching for the animal vehicle could be a “red herring”. Shi Zhengli is also the head of the Wuhan BSL4 lab, suspected of accidental release of SARS-Cov2. There are a dozen laboratories in Wuhan where virologists have worked on coronaviruses since the SARS-Cov emerged in 2003. This suspicion has been increased by information, published by Shi Zhengli in Virologica Sinica in 2016, suggesting a direct infection from bat guano to miners who worked in a cave in Mojiang (Southern China) and were treated in a hospital in Kunming in 2013. The hypothesis of a lab accident is also confirmed by phylogenetic trees displaying a “frozen evolution” in bat coronaviruses related to SARS-Cov-2. An article published in PlosBiology in April 2020 thus connects an outbreak of bluetongue in Europe 2015 to a previous outbreak in 2008, contained by vaccination, showing that the 2008 virus had not been replicating for multiple years prior to its re-emergence in 2015.The term “frozen evolution” is used when a phylogenetic tree has long branches without mutations, indicating that a virus is stable in a freezer before it escapes and starts mutating again. It is also used in evolutionary theory to explain the adaptation of species to stable environments.
The debate on the origins of Covid-19 thus takes place at the crossroads of two cold chains which incidentally meet in Wuhan: one connecting farms and markets between North and central China, the other connecting hospitals and labs between South and central China. The problem of biosecurity in the closed spaces of farms and labs is thus connected to questions of maintenance of the cold chain over long distances, which is also at the heart of discussions on vaccines against Covid-19. Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal have used the term “cryopolitics”, to contrast it with what Michel Foucault has called “biopolitics”. While the debate about the origins of COVID-19 asks who is responsible for “making live” and “letting die”, the maintenance of the cold chain aims requires attentions to the degrees and distances in “making latent life and deferring death”. While the debate on the origins of Covid-19 is characteristic of “hot societies”, replaying the origins to regenerate norms, the investigation on technologies of conservation uses modes of reasoning from “cold societies”, mapping the diversity of non-human species co-evolving with humans.
Frédéric Keck is Director of Research at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology (CNRS-Collège de France-EHESS). After working on the history of social anthropology and contemporary biopolitical questions raised by avian influenza, he was the head of the research department of the musée du quai Branly between 2014 and 2018. He has published Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts with Duke University Press in 2020.