Divisive COVID lab leak debate prompts dire warnings from researchers – Nature.com

Even if the letter in Science was well intentioned, its authors should have believed more about how it would feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this concern, states Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.The lead author of the letter, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, still feels its essential to voice his viewpoint– and states he cant stop it from being misrepresented. “I am not stating I believe the virus came from a laboratory,” he says. Reacting to the Wall Street Journal, Chinas foreign ministry stated: “The US keeps shouting and creating irregular claims to examine laboratories in Wuhan.

They say the volatility of the argument might ward off efforts to study the infections origins.Global-health researchers also alert that the growing demands are intensifying tensions between the United States and China ahead of crucial conferences at which world leaders will make high-level decisions about how to curb the pandemic and prepare for future health emergencies. An US– China divide will make agreement on these issues more difficult to reach, states David Fidler, a global-health scientist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington DC. Even if the letter in Science was well intentioned, its authors ought to have believed more about how it would feed into the dissentious political environment surrounding this concern, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.The lead author of the letter, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, still feels its important to voice his viewpoint– and states he cant stop it from being misrepresented. “I am not saying I believe the virus came from a lab,” he states. Reacting to the Wall Street Journal, Chinas foreign ministry stated: “The United States keeps creating irregular claims and clamoring to examine laboratories in Wuhan.

Calls to examine Chinese labs have reached a fever pitch in the United States, as Republican leaders declare that the coronavirus causing the pandemic was leaked from one, and as some scientists argue that this laboratory leak hypothesis needs an extensive, independent inquiry. But for many researchers, the tone of the growing demands is disturbing. They state the volatility of the argument might thwart efforts to study the viruss origins.Global-health scientists likewise warn that the growing needs are worsening stress between the United States and China ahead of important meetings at which world leaders will make top-level decisions about how to curb the pandemic and prepare for future health emergencies. At the World Health Assembly this week, for instance, health officials from nearly 200 nations are talking about techniques consisting of ways to increase vaccine production and to reform the World Health Organization (WHO). However an US– China divide will make agreement on these concerns more difficult to reach, says David Fidler, a global-health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington DC. “If theres some rejecting of the geopolitical heat between these two great powers, we could create some area to perhaps do some of the important things that we need to do,” he says.Others worry that the rhetoric around an alleged lab leakage has actually grown so poisonous that its fuelling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States, as well as upseting researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed.Fever pitchThe dispute over the lab-leak hypothesis has actually been rumbling given that last year. It has grown louder in the previous month– even without strong supporting evidence. On 14 May, 18 scientists released a letter in Science1 arguing that the concept of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 leaking from a lab in China must be checked out more deeply. It points out that the first stage of a COVID-19 origins examination sponsored by the WHO, which launched a report in March, focused more on the infection originating from an animal than on its prospective escape from a lab. The report mapped a big market in Wuhan, China, and mentioned that most samples of SARS-CoV-2 recovered there by investigators were found around stalls that sold animals. Many virologists say that this focus is called for, because a lot of emerging transmittable illness start with a spillover from nature, as seen with HIV, Zika and Ebola. Genomic evidence likewise suggests that an infection similar to SARS-CoV-2 originated in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus spp.), prior to spreading out to an unknown animal that then passed the pathogen to individuals.

In January, members of the group investigating COVID-19s origins on behalf of the World Health Organization visited a market in Wuhan where animals are sold.Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, which some individuals allege was the source of a SARS-CoV-2 leak.Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters/Alamy