Instead of following false claims like hamsters on a wheel, we should focus our efforts on the areas where the next waves of pandemic are likely to emerge
by Peter Daszak edited by O Society June 15, 2020
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove cited an “important” scientific report that suggested that the novel coronavirus had not emerged naturally, but had been created by Chinese scientists. Dearlove said he believed the pandemic had “started as an accident” after the virus escaped the lab. A month earlier, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had said he had “enormous evidence” that Covid-19 had originated in a lab in China, only to backtrack from this claim on live TV in the same sentence.
Suggestions that Covid-19 is a manmade virus are the latest chapter in a tale of blame, misinformation and finger-pointing. Cue the conspiracy storytellers marching out their narrative about the high-security BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, where mysterious experiments to design “frankenviruses” led to the tragic global pandemic. Cue the genetic analyses pointing to “unexpected” insertions in the code of A, G, T, and C that explain how this virus could not have evolved naturally. Cue political posturing against China, with calls for an inquiry, trade sanctions and even reparations.
Determining the origins and emergence of a pandemic is as messy and complex as studying a plane crash. Just as an air crash investigator pieces together fragments at a crash site, pinpointing the origins of a new virus is painstakingly difficult and time-consuming, and requires logic and reason.
I know because this is exactly what our organisation, EcoHealth Alliance, does. We work around the world to identify the origins of pandemics, map them and analyse them, and use these results to predict where the next pandemic will likely emerge. We then target these “hotspots” for enhanced surveillance, capacity-building and risk-reduction programmes to prevent diseases emerging.
I also know the work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because we have partnered with them on research projects. For the past 15 years we’ve been working in China to analyse the group of viruses from which Sars and now Covid-19 have emerged. Sampling more than 16,000 bats, we showed that Sars emerged from a cluster of coronaviruses carried by horseshoe bats that are abundant across southern and central China and traded frequently in wet markets. We found Sars-related viruses that could infect human cells in the lab, cause diseases in lab animals, and evade drugs and vaccines designed to protect us. We worked with the scientists behind the breakthrough drug Remdesivir to show that it was effective against known human coronaviruses and the viruses we suspected might be the next to emerge. We raised the red flag on these viruses and pointed out their potential to cause the next pandemic.
Our 15 years of work in China now puts us in a unique position to identify, with a remarkable degree of confidence, the likely origin of Covid-19. In a recent paper, soon to appear in a peer-reviewed journal, we reported 781 genetic sequences of bat-origin coronaviruses previously unknown to scientists. These include the closest known relatives to Sars-CoV, Sars-CoV-2 and Sads-CoV, a virus that killed more than 25,000 pigs in Guangdong in 2016 and 2017. All are carried by horseshoe bats that are found across southern China and neighbouring countries. Our report firmly concludes that Covid-19 originated in bats, in a hotspot of viral evolution along the border of Yunnan province in China, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
Most people (including former heads of intelligence agencies) aren’t trained in how to decipher genetic codes, so we have to assess the rigour of competing research to determine the truth of claims that Covid-19 was manmade. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine, researchers strongly refuted the idea that the code had been purposefully manipulated. Whereas the article in Nature Medicine was written by senior virologists, one author, John Fredrik Moxnes, the chief scientific adviser to the Norwegian military, has already withdrawn his name from the paper cited by Dearlove – while scientists from the Francis Crick institute and Imperial College London also dismissed its conclusions.
And the claim in the earlier version of this paper to have proven “beyond reasonable doubt that the Covid-19 virus is engineered” was removed in the later version. This claim relied on an insertion in the genetic code for the spike protein of the virus, the place where the virus locks into our own cells. But the discovery of another novel bat coronavirus in southern China, very closely related to Sars-CoV-2, that includes a similar insertion shows this can evolve naturally.
Contrary to the idea that Chinese scientists deliberately released the virus, existing patterns of infection suggest that the wide spread of Covid-19 was a question of when, not if. Only a handful of people work on bat coronaviruses in labs in China, and they wear masks and gloves so as not to contaminate their laboratories. In 2018, we conducted a pilot survey of people living in rural Yunnan province and found nearly 3% had antibodies for bat coronaviruses. Expanding this data to cover the densely populated area in southeast Asia where there are bats known to harbour coronaviruses, we can safely estimate that between one and seven million people are infected with bat coronaviruses each year.
Unfortunately, this sort of logic will not deter conspiracy theorists. The dark power of the internet means that anyone, anywhere, can find evidence to echo even the most outlandish of claims. Theories that Sars originated from space or that HIV was manmade are readily available, but it doesn’t make them true. Such conspiracies play to our most base instincts and paranoias – fears that dissolve logic and reason. The details of how this virus emerged naturally are far less exciting. They’re about how humans and animals have interacted for millennia, now at an unprecedented rate. They’re about how human domination of the world’s ecosystems as we encroach on animal habitats is opening new pathways for viruses, once hidden in the depths of the forest, to be transmitted to humans.
Even as Covid-19 continues to spread across the world, analysing its origin is of critical importance for our species on this planet. If we allow myths and rumours to set our pandemic prevention agenda, we miss, quite literally, the forest for the trees. We estimate that there are 1.7m undiscovered viruses in wildlife in emerging disease hotspots such as rural southeast Asia. Rather than chasing conspiracies, we should be focusing our efforts on these regions and the communities on their frontlines. A pandemic such as this one isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy. Ignoring the guidance of the global scientific community about how and why they emerge will come at a great cost to us all.