President Joe Biden has called for the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble efforts to determine the origins of the COVID-19” pandemic. This mandate is based on a new U.S. intelligence report that indicated several of the lab workers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.” Allegedly, the three were hospitalized in November 2019.
The charge to the intelligence community was to determine whether “the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.” In conducting this investigation, it might be useful to avoid only focusing on a binary choice. That is, either the virus escaped from the laboratory or from a spillover from an infected animal to a human.
In this first scenario where the virus would have escaped from the laboratory, the implication is that research on this virus species was being conducted at the laboratory, perhaps even gain of function research, which involves changing a pathogens genotype to cause a gain or loss in a desired function such as the ability to replicate efficiently. This information can be very useful in understanding the functionality of a pathogen and developing medical countermeasures. It could also have adverse consequences if not done in proper containment and the virus escapes from the lab.
The second scenario would result from a spillover that occurs in nature. This occurs when humans and animal species come into close contact. Unfortunately, these spillovers are occurring with greater frequency. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome and the Middle East respiratory syndrome are both coronaviruses related to COVID-19, which appeared to have resulted from just such spillovers.
There are two alternative scenarios that could be considered as well. The first would be a spillover event where researchers from a laboratory—possibly China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology that studies coronaviruses—were searching for isolates of bat coronaviruses in nearby caves. Perhaps they were either not wearing the proper personal protective equipment, did not properly decontaminate after leaving the cave, or inadequately secured and sealed their samples. The coronaviruses they collected need not have included COVID-19. Instead, it could have been near genomic neighbors that through replication, mutated and became COVID-19 variants.
The second alternative scenario builds off of the first one. In this scenario, scientists working with coronavirus variants could have become exposed through improper or lax biosafety and biosecurity procedures in the laboratory. Just as in the first alternative scenario, a near genomic neighbor virus could have mutated and become a COVID-19 variant.
Regardless of which of the scenarios is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, some important lessons might be learned to minimize the risk of another pandemic. First and foremost is ensuring that scientists and laboratory technicians are using proper biosafety and biosecurity procedures at all times when working with biological pathogens. Biosafety ensures that workers are protected from pathogens while biosecurity prevents pathogens from inadvertently being released into the environment and is protected from those who might seek to use them for illegitimate purposes. Biosafety and biosecurity require training, education and proper equipment for those who work with biological pathogens.
Biosafety and biosecurity also imply oversight and management at the facilities—including at high containment facilities—where these pathogens are being researched. An emerging concern is the proliferation of high containment laboratory facilities. One 2019 study highlights that since September 11, 2001, and the Amerithrax attacks, the number of high containment laboratories has grown horizontally and vertically. Of the eighty-six nations that were analyzed, forty had described high containment laboratory construction. On the one hand, the larger number of facilities signifies that nations understand the growing importance of having proper containment during research. However, these facilities also represent an increased risk due to the challenges associated with the management and oversight of running these high containment facilities.
While redoubling the efforts to determine the origins of the covert pandemic is prudent in light of the new information, we also need to be realistic that the origins of COVID-19 may never be established with any degree of certainty. In congressional testimony earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offered that even six years after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we are still not certain of the intermediate host for that outbreak.
As the intelligence community seeks to determine the origins of the pandemic, remaining open to a range of possibilities as the source of the virus would be a useful point of departure.
Daniel M. Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, served as the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014.