The Origins of COVID-19: Implications for U.S.-China Relations
Panelists discuss the possible origins of COVID-19, including the growing concern that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Virology Lab rather than originating in nature, what the ramifications are for regulating this type of research, and the implications for U.S.-China relations.
GOLODRYGA: Thank you so much. And good afternoon, everyone. I’m Bianna Golodryga, senior global affairs analysist at CNN, and I’m delighted to be moderating this meeting today.
We’re focusing on the investigation into the origin of COVID-19, including the growing concern that it may have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Virology Lab, as well as what are the ramifications of that for regulating this type of research and the implications for the U.S.-China relationship going forward. Joining us is a distinguished panel: CFR Senior Fellow Yanzhong Huang, virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, and journalist Nicolas Wade.
So let’s just dive in. We’re going to have about thirty minutes of a Q&A and then we’ll take your questions. Let me begin with you, Dr. Rasmussen. You know, one question I keep asking and hearing is how is it we’re a year and a half into this pandemic and we still don’t know the origins of the virus?
RASMUSSEN: Well, this is actually—this is a common misconception, that it is actually easy to find out where a novel emerging virus actually came from. There are many viruses that we are very familiar with that have been emerging and reemerging into the human population. Ebola is one good example of that. We know that Ebola, for example, probably circulates in a number of different bat species throughout the African continent. We don’t know which bat species those actually are. We also don’t know the circumstances under which many Ebola outbreaks occur, whether they are through direct contact with bats or through an intermediate species. So this is actually a very, very common issue when dealing with any sort of emergent or reemergent virus. It’s very, very difficult sometimes to find the so-called host animal. And it’s especially difficult to do that when there are some questions about the kind of access that scientists would have to the animals that may have had this virus.
So I think the expectation—you know, many people have said, well, you know, it had to come from the lab because we haven’t yet found a host animal for it. But with Ebola—you know, Ebola first emerged in 1976. We’re almost fifty years later and we still haven’t found the host animal. So it is not uncommon at all to have not found it. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look, and that we shouldn’t continue to look. That is very important. But it also doesn’t mean that one origin hypothesis is more likely than another.
GOLODRYGA: It’s interesting, because I’ve heard others sort of take a different view and look at SARS, right? And say that we were able to trace the origins to other natural zoonotic jumps within the research and the investigation into the origins of SARS. Is this just a different case, in your opinion? I mean, how does this differ from SARS? I know that when we began early on in covering this pandemic, it did seem that the logical rationale was that it came from a bat to an intermediate host—perhaps a pangolin, what have you, or civet—and then to humans. And maybe because we haven’t found that host animal, we’re at this point now.
RASMUSSEN: Yeah. So I think there are some things in common with SARS classic’s emergence and there are some things that are very, very different. So with SARS coronavirus the market stayed open after the first cases of SARS were identified. Now, that also occurred—that outbreak occurred a very long way away from Yunnan, where the bats that are thought to carry these coronaviruses live. So it did probably jump into the human population via an intermediate species. And certainly, there were palm civets found that did have SARS coronavirus infections. Now, the circumstances of that are somewhat unclear, but one thing that is very, very different is that those markets stayed open, and people were able to test the animals that were being sold at those markets.
That was absolutely not the case in Wuhan. Several weeks ago, a paper was published in Scientific Reports by a group of people that were monitoring the wildlife trade in Wuhan. And they confirmed that prior to the epidemic or right around the same time that it emerged in the fall of 2019 there were animals that are known to be susceptible to SARS-like coronaviruses, including SARS-coronavirus-2, such as raccoon dogs, that were live and sold at the markets in Wuhan. We also know that those animals often are raised on the same farms and come as part of a common supply chain. Unfortunately, though, because so many of the markets were closed down, and the animals were cleared out, and it’s been very difficult to get access to samples from those animals, it’s very hard to say whether or not that is a plausible source of zoonotic spillover.
But I think that that is one of the big questions that we really do need to answer. I think that the World Health Organization mission earlier this year that did test eighty thousand animal samples, really that seems like a lot but it’s a drop in the bucket. I’m not convinced that we have actually done adequate surveillance to determine that there weren’t intermediate species being sold at the markets in Wuhan that could have been the source of this spillover.
GOLODRYGA: Well, Yanzhong, one narrative for the reason as to why we don’t know the source of this pandemic and the virus is that the Chinese government has been involved in a massive coverup and had not been transparent, and that records and samples had been destroyed, and they had not let researchers and investigators in early enough, suggesting that most of the evidence is in China. Do you agree with that narrative, or is it oversimplified?
HUANG: Yeah, I think that is a simplified version of what happened surrounding the investigation of the origins of the outbreak. But if we look at this—how, you know, this lab-escape theory being unfolded then revitalized, it was very clear, right, that politics played a very critical role. You know, from the very beginning I think it is fair to say, you know, that nobody—you know, few people can resist the temptation not to link, you know, the outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. So for, like, people like Senator Cotton, in a way, and he was making the connection—you know, and he also indicated that it was not intentional; it was just, like, an accidental lab leak—you know, I think it was normal to make that connection.
And it was also true at the time, you know, with that theory it was marginalized and considered, you know, largely as a conspiracy theory. But you know, it never disappeared in social media, like, in the United States or China. Like, even some leading public health experts, you know, sort of fell prey to their influence. You know, that, I think, might explain why, you know, Dr. Zhang Longshai (ph), you know, a public face, you know, of China’s crusade against COVID, you know, started to believe, you know, that—when he said on February 28, 2020, said, you know, there’s some new developments that—overseas, you know, that this outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, doesn’t necessarily mean, right, Wuhan is the origin point of the outbreak. Then you have the Chinese, you know, the wolf warrior diplomat Zhao Lijian used that to refute the Wuhan virus and the lab leak theory.
And then furthermore, you have this, you know, thing increasingly entangled with the politization of the origins of the pandemic. When you have U.S. top diplomats increasingly link the virus to China, Wuhan in particular. And then, you know, you have Zhao Lijian promoted the lab escape from, you know, a U.S. military lab, you know? And then you have President Trump—former President Trump double down after Zhao Lijian in a tweet came out indicating the U.S. being the origin point of the outbreak. And he started to routinely refer to the “Chinese virus,” or the “kung flu,” in his words. You know, that essentially challenged the Chinese government’s narrative, you know, on its successful pandemic response.
You know, so the stakes, they become even higher in April when Australia, you know, started to call for international investigation, and then Trump officially promoted the lab leak theory, right? So that blame game was played out at a whole new level. You have—while China accepted the WHO mission, but they also tried to influence the WHO investigation in ways that won’t contradict this official narrative. You know, so, you know, I think that you can see how, you know, that this has become so complicated and controversial process, that larger investigation now succumb to the larger politics, not science and peer review.
GOLODRYGA: Yeah. Well, obviously, this was an election year, right? And this, you know, approach from President Trump was different from his initial views and public statements about it early on, saying that he’d spoken with President Xi, and they had it under control, and they were all on the same page. And he was praising him and thanking him for the American public. That all shifted over the course of those first few months.
But, Nicholas, so much of this is just about transparency and trust, right? And we seem to lack both, it appears, from both the U.S. government side—at least, from what we heard from the White House and other elected officials—and also from China. I mean, let’s be honest. The only reason we had the sequencing genome of the virus as early as we did was because one of the doctors there sort of went rogue in China. How did that all add to this level of mistrust and confusion about the origins? I mean, could things have been different had both sides, particularly China, been more open and transparent?
WADE: Well, yes, I think it certainly would have been very different if China had been more transparent. I think the Chinese coverup was much more specific than we’ve just heard, because if you look at what Dr. Shi Zhengli has said, she has deliberately covered up the body of knowledge that leads one to think that she was creating—she was experimenting with dangerous viruses in her lab. For example, when she first described the virus, she neglected to mention that it has something called furin cleavage sites, which is the—adds on to its virulence and so on, the main pieces of evidence making you think it could have been manipulated. She then tried to conceal the fact that the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, which she was describing in her paper, had in fact been obtained from an abandoned mine where a virus had seriously sickened six miners and killed three of them.
GOLODRYGA: That was in 2012.
WADE: In 2012. So she had been busily working on that mine, trying to cultivate viruses from it. This was perfectly legitimate research. She was trying to assess the likelihood of another epidemic breaking out. But nonetheless, she tried to conceal this sort of pedigree of her research, which makes you think that there as a guilty intent there, something that in a court of law would be quite persuasive evidence. It’s not persuasive scientific evidence. In fact, I think—you know, a useful scientific—a useful summary of the scientific evidence for your readers, would—your viewers—would, I think, be the fact that we have two very plausible hypotheses on the table—natural emergence and lab escape. But we have no direct evidence for either one.
Now, we would be a lot further on, to answer your original question, if the Chinese government had been much more—had been open from the start, instead of specifically closing down all its databases and everything, all the records about what Dr. Xi was doing. I think we would be much further on if the mainstream media and the Western world hadn’t been essentially asleep at the switch and failed to investigate this rather important story and the possibility there was a lab leak. And that has sort of carried us through a whole year of ignorance, I would say, in which we’ve failed many opportunities to try and find out what happened.
GOLODRYGA: And this brings the WHO in. And, Dr. Rasmussen, let me turn to you, because obviously no one is saying we don’t need a WHO. I think, if anything, this pandemic has indicated how important and crucial it is to prevent pandemics and to investigate origins of pandemics. I think there’s questions about the independence of the WHO, and where a lot of their funding comes from. And in particular, I want to ask about that February 9th press conference, where it seemed that they presented most of the Chinese talking points and all but dismissed the idea that it could have come from a lab leak. And this was early on. There are confusing aspects to this, though, because we aren’t very clear—or, it wasn’t made clear as to who was actually conducting this investigation. Can you give us more insight into that press briefing and their investigation?
RASMUSSEN: Sure. I will. But before I do that, I just want to correct a couple things that Mr. Wade just said. So he suggested that Dr. Shi was concealing data about RaTG13, which is the closest relative to SARS-coronavirus-2, as well as concealing the furin cleavage site in a paper that she published. Now, the furin cleavage site is an unusual furin cleavage site. It’s actually suboptimal and it would not necessarily stick out to anybody looking at that sequence that it, in fact, was a furin cleavage site.
Second of all, that entire sequence was published in the paper, so it wasn’t concealed at all. And the sequence in question in the figure that is said to be concealing this because it doesn’t mark the furin cleavage site as a furin cleavage site, is actually just a sequence of the S1 section of the spike protein. The furin cleavage site is at that cleavage boundary. That’s actually what furin does in the spike protein. So I don’t think that this is necessarily intentional concealment.
Same thing with talking about RaTG13. It was disclosed. It was just called something else. And it is actually not uncommon at all for virologists to name their clones, their subclones, their isolates different things before they settle on a final name. So I just wanted to correct that. There is another potential explanation for Dr. Shi’s actions, or lack thereof. And it doesn’t necessarily point to duplicity.
Now, with regard to the WHO, I mean, they are in a difficult position. The WHO is—they are not the boss of their member states. The WHO cannot march into China and, you know, we say have a warrant, we’re going to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and we expect no interference and total cooperation. Anything that the WHO does has to be with the consent and invitation of its member states, including China. So of course any type of WHO mission is going to have to be conducted with a certain amount of diplomacy and cooperation with the host country, which in this case is China.
Now, I’m not saying that the WHO isn’t—don’t have their hands tied by that fact. There should potentially be a mechanism for investigating this type of thing in way that would be more effective than the WHO, which again is relying on goodwill and collaboration between member states. I do think that the WHO could have been more selective with who they chose for their delegation. That has certainly caused a lot of problems in terms of those people’s perceived conflicts of interest, or actual conflicts of interest.
But I think that—you know, I don’t agree with the fact that, for example, the frozen food hypothesis is that likely. At the same time, it can’t be ruled out. Nor was lab leak ruled out. All of those hypotheses are still on the table. I think that there’s a certain amount of diplomacy that goes into these types of missions. And I think that’s what we saw at that press conference, not necessarily a shining example of the way an objective and fully independent investigation could be conducted. But I don’t believe there’s any alternative.
GOLODRYGA: But there is a difference, you agree, with not ruling out a hypothesis—which is, you know, that the frozen food leak, which is what China had been turning to from, you know, the early says of this pandemic—to the likelihood of one, right?
RASMUSSEN: That’s correct. Yes. I will note, though, that that mission did find, and the report found, that the most likely hypothesis for origin is indirect zoonotic spillover from an intermediate species.
GOLODRYGA: Yanzhong, we talk about Dr. Shi a lot, and the research that they were doing. Is there any chance that perhaps both narratives or both arguments are correct? That Dr. Shi was not being duplicitous and not covering anything up, but perhaps was not aware of any higher-level, top government research that had been going on without her knowledge?
HUANG: Well, I think while that possibility certainly cannot be ruled out—you know, that you might recall this report from the French newspaper Le Monde, like, talking about after she learned about the outbreak, you know, she couldn’t sleep for several nights. You know, and they—she double-checked in her record, you know, the samples, and found, you know, they were—seems to be nothing indicating that there was actually lab leak occurring. And so we—you know, we have no evidence not to trust, you know, what she said.
That being said, you know, given that, again, what this issue of the origin tracing research, you know, has been so politicized, you know, that—and also, right, in China they have the government regulation that required the government approval to conduct a similar research. And its results have to be—the findings also needs to be censored, right, by the government. And so, you know, that—(laughs)—you know, certainly, right, that may point to other possibilities. You know, I’m not, you know, a scientist. Or Dr. Rasmussen may have more say on that.
GOLODRYGA: Is there anything you want to jump in on, Dr. Rasmussen, on that point?
RASMUSSEN: No. I mean, I think that this is one of the big problems with this origin discussion, is that all of the evidence is circumstantial. (Laughs.) And so we can only take bits and pieces, what we know about how China and the Chinese government control information, about what is being disclosed, about how much do we trust this person—how much do we trust Dr. Shi? How much do we trust the WHO? You know, all of these are not scientific questions. And that’s part of the problem. We don’t have access to a lot of hard evidence.
Right now, in terms—maybe I should just take a moment to lay out the evidence that there is for the lab versus zoonotic hypothesis. The lab hypothesis, basically the only evidence that exists for this is the fact that the pandemic started in Wuhan, and the laboratory happens to be there. That’s all we can confirm. In terms of zoonotic origin, we do have a lot of historical data about SARS coronavirus, about other beta coronavirus and sarbecoviruses. We also have a lot of sequence information and sequence analysis that we can do. And finally, we now have more information about what types of intermediate species were present in Wuhan that could potentially have been a vector.
So there is still insufficient evidence on both sides. We are seeing evolution of this virus, as the pandemic continues to spread around the world. So far, myself and many of my colleagues, agree that that does still point towards continued adaptation to a human host and a relatively recent emergence into the human population. But ultimately, without affirmative evidence confirming one hypothesis over another, we just don’t know. So this is still something that is going to be a matter of discussion for some time to come, until we do have that evidence.
WADE: I think one might emphasize that, despite what Dr. Rasmussen has said, there is still not a shred of direct in favor of natural emergence. It’s a very plausible hypothesis. And all the evidence that she and others have produced confirm its plausibility. But that is different from finding any direct evidence, for which the Chinese government has every incentive to have looked as hard as possible, and yet failed to provide any to the WHO commission to Beijing.
GOLODRYGA: So that takes to me to my next question about what happens next, specifically in terms of U.S.-China relations. President Biden has said that he is waiting on analysis from his intelligence community for further investigation and data as to the origins. I mean, Nicholas, do you expect that his IC, which obviously has access to more information that we certainly do, will be able to pinpoint the origins here of a virus that, you know, did seem to be pretty adaptable to human early on?
WADE: Well, my guess is that the intelligence community will not be able to get much further than we are already. Namely, we’ve got two plausible hypotheses, no direct evidence for either. I think in various ways, if you ask which hypothesis explains certain facts better, the lab hypothesis has much more of a natural, easy explanation. So you might conclude that the weight of evidence leans in that direction. And that is perhaps what the intelligence community will say. And the bottom line—the bottom line that I expect is that it will be—it will be unresolved. But the Chinese government still has to face the fact that lab possibility—that lab escape is a serious possibility. I think people around the world are going to become more and more to realize this. And that it will be an albatross around the government’s neck until it does something to address people’s concerns.
GOLODRYGA: So, Yanzhong, what is your view on then if we—the likelihood of a definitive answer is not high. How should the U.S. continue pursuing, you know, research here in tracking the origins at a time when we’ve seen tensions at their highest between the two countries?
HUANG: Well, yeah, I think the United States certainly should work with the international society, including like-minded countries, to pursue a more in-depth thorough investigation of the outbreak, including have access—I mean, in-country access for investigation in China. This will be done through the WHO, you know, but this time I think, unlike the January investigation, I think the WHO should be in the driver’s seat in conducting the investigation because one of the—while I think it’s naïve to think, you know, WHO, just given its relationship with member states—you know, it’s naïve to think that WHO will be able to have an independent, transparent, complete, thorough investigation.
But at least I think that there’s certain things the WHO I think could have done to avoid that PR fiasco, right, that was the release of that March 30th report, right? First, as Dr. Rasmussen pointed out, in terms of selection, right, of experts to participate, right, you could be more—could have done a better job, right? Because the report suggests that the United States submitted thirteen names—thirteen, I think, out of the twenty-five names; you know, none of them were accepted by the WHO. Instead, they pick one, you know, that—or, as Nicholas—the Bulletin reported suggested there is clear conflict of issues there. And secondly, they could have focused more investigation on the lab leak issue. Instead, they only spent three hours, right, in the institute. You can then, you know, reach the conclusion that this hypothesis is, like, extremely unlikely, right?
So, first. But there’s a second. I think the U.S. should also consider breaking this impasse, right, by changing its stance toward China’s characterizations regarding the connections between the pandemic and activities in the U.S. military labs. Because this—last fall, even though the Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were, you know, saying, well, you are calling to investigate us, but you should also allow us to investigate your military labs, you know? I think this might be just disinformation—pure disinformation. But the lack of response for U.S. side also is used to support Chinese claims that the U.S. has, what they call, the guilty conscience and justify its, you know, refusal to reopen the international investigation. So, you know, if actually history can be a guide, under the President George Bush, Sr., the United States did allow Soviet inspections of the biological facilities in exchange for the visits of the Biopreparat facilities in the Soviet Union, right, by a joint British-American inspection team in January 1991.
GOLODRYGA: I guess it’s just a matter of whether, you know, a President Xi would allow the same. And this does seem—I’m glad you brought up the Soviet Union—because this is a classic example of deflection and whataboutisms, as we’ve seen playing out in real time between the United States and Russia and the Western world.
One more question to you, Dr. Rasmussen, before we open it up. And that is—I mean, it’s a rather simple question, but I think that it speaks to what happens from here on out. And that is, why is it so important that we get to the bottom of the origins here? And what can be done to prevent another pandemic, where we don’t see, you know, several million people lose their lives? We have these labs in China, in the United States. I mean, research is being done. One could argue in favor or against some of the work that’s being done. But in your view, what is an effective and productive way to move forward now?
RASMUSSEN: I think that’s a great question. And it’s kind of the million-dollar question right now. The first question that you asked, why is it important to find out the origin, that’s actually not important to end the pandemic that we’re currently going through. We don’t need to find out the origin in order to make sure that everybody has vaccines, in order to make sure that we can continue developing antivirals, things like that. We also don’t need to know the origin to start taking steps that I think are important for pandemic preparedness and response.
And one of those steps should be a conversation about biosafety, because it doesn’t matter, actually, if this was a lab origin or a natural zoonotic origin. We need to address all potential sources of spillover into the human population. And certainly biosafety is something that virologists like myself, who do work in containment, think about all the time. One thing that has become very clear as a result of this is that there is no international standard, and we are really relying on countries to police and govern themselves in terms of their biosafety protocols. I think that it is time to get the people who are doing—from the different countries that are doing this type of research together in one room and begin to establish international regulations for conducting this type of crucial work.
I think it’s also going to be really important going forward in terms of the public’s understanding of this as well to distinguish between essential virology research and the so-called gain-of-function research of concern. I think a lot of people have confused doing basic virology research with gain-of-function research. Very little virology research is actually gain-of-function research. Having conversations about whether we should do gain-of-function research or not are important.
And I think that, you know, you will find people on both sides of the issue. But I think it’s very much not settled. I think it is something that we would really benefit from a productive international conversation about, and perhaps laying some international standards down about how this type of work, or if this type of work, should be conducted. That is not dependent, however, on finding out the origin of this virus. That is something we should be doing anyways.
GOLODRYGA: Yeah. And the gain-of-function conversation is just so interesting because there is a—there is—you know, one has to ask whether U.S. taxpayer dollars should be going towards that. And that’s for a different discussion.
Nicholas, do you want to just quickly jump in before we open it up to the audience?
WADE: Yes. I’d like to say it does matter a great deal whether the virus originated naturally or by a lab leak. If it originated by a lab leak, this casts doubt on a grand strategy pursued by virologists around the world, which is instead of waiting for these viruses to jump over from animals to humans, let’s go into nature, beat the bushes, bring the viruses back home to our lab, and study them. This is the way that the virus got to Dr. Shi’s lab and maybe out of it. If the virus did escape from her lab in that way, then this whole strategy is highly dangerous. It’s been—someone has compared it to looking for a gas leak with a lighted candle. We should rethink this whole strategy of trying to find animal viruses and bring them home to our labs. So that’s why the mode of origin matters a great deal.
RASMUSSEN: I disagree with that. And that is actually not the predominant strategy that virologists are using general to combat viruses that are major public health problems. Most of the viruses that are public health problems that are we are dealing with are viruses that are either known or are closely related to viruses that are known. Unless we find out that this happened somebody was out doing global virus surveillance, or this was a lab leak then we can have that conversation. But I don’t agree that this is looking for a gas leak with a lighted candle. That is not the level of danger or biosafety lapse that is occurring when people are doing this type of work. You are not likely to be exposed to a virus in the course of doing the vast majority of these studies to become infected with one. And I ask Mr. Wade, what is the alternative? Do you wish to wait until a novel virus emerges, just like this one, so that we can be completely uninformed in how we are going to respond to it?
WADE: Well, the bottom line, though, is if this virus did indeed escape from a lab, then we were working for the virus for a candle, and we’ve got a massive explosion that has killed four million people.
RASMUSSEN: If. We don’t know that, though.
WADE: We don’t.
GOLODRYGA: Well, on that note—(laughs)—let’s open up to questions from the audience. I think we have a few queued up already.
STAFF: We will take our first question from Shannon Kellman.
Q: Thank you so much for convening this panel. It’s been a very interesting discussion so far. So I am Shannon Kellman. I’m the policy director at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
And I was hoping that you could address, given everything that has happened with the COVID pandemic and all of the mistakes that have been made, intentionally or not, how should the global community be responding and be thinking about pandemic preparedness and response in a systemic way, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, but also ensuring that we’re not creating duplicative systems on top of already existing vertical or horizontal health systems?
GOLODRYGA: Great question. Who wants to answer it first?
RASMUSSEN: Well, I would say, just as a virologist, the majority of countries around the world don’t need to worry about going out and doing any kind of cutting-edge virology research to prepare for the next pandemic. We need to focus on things like building global health care infrastructure, improving per capita health care spending, making sure that we have robust health care systems in place before we start to worry about hypothetical viruses emerging in every country in the world. I think countries that have these research programs in place, we need to work together to make sure that we can conduct this type of research safely, and to make sure that we’re asking questions that will be relevant, particularly to the people who are at the greatest risk and who will be most vulnerable. But for the vast majority of the world, really what we need to do is improve infrastructure in terms of health care and pandemic response.
GOLODRYGA: Yanzhong or Nicholas, do you want to add to that before we move on?
HUANG: I think there’s, like, a hiccup on my side. So I didn’t get all the full question.
GOLODRYGA: OK. Well, let’s make sure to get as many questions as we can. So, Teagan, if we want to move on.
STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Reynold Verret. Please accept the unmute now.
Q: Hello. I’m Reynold Verret. I’m president of Xavier, but I’m also asking this question as a scientist and immunologist.
Could you speak about how the discussion about how the two options became so polarized in the scientific community? And where we normally think of Occam’s razor, thinking about these different hypotheses. And how quickly we ran to dismiss one and to assume that one was completely unlikely and move that—to speak about how we actually, as scientists, stand by certain standard paradigms, but we should rightly consider the other paradigms, because think that conversation is where we arrive that easily dismissed one hypothesis and move to another, but we have no data on either one.
WADE: This has been the problem from the beginning. Instead of considering the two hypotheses on their merits, on equal footing, we set aside the lab leak hypothesis for more than a year and just didn’t consider it seriously. So this is not a scientific way to proceed. Both the lessons that influence public influence in this way—from one in the Lancet and one in Nature Medicine earlier last year—both of these were very unscientific letters. They consisted of scientists assuring the public of facts they could not know. This was not a good day for the scientific community. The scientific community has not held itself to its highest standards in pursuing this issue, in my view.
RASMUSSEN: I disagree with that. I think that in particular the Nature Medicine article that he’s referring to, the proximal origin of SARS-coronavirus-2, actually has been considering the lab leak hypothesis from the beginning. And that’s apparent when you read Kristian Andersen, my colleague and the lead author of that paper’s, correspondence with Tony Fauci from February of 2020, in which he stated that certain genomic features of that virus did look unusual and so they were going to analyze it further. They did analyze it further and concluded that it was likely natural. But that paper—same with the Lancet letter, although the Lancet letter was just a straight opinion piece—both of those did not exclude or dismiss the lab leak. They said that it was less likely.
I have been talking about this since April of 2020, or March of 2020. I have never dismissed the lab leak. There is a difference between saying that one hypothesis is less plausible than another than saying that it couldn’t have happened at all. I don’t think anybody who’s serious and who is a serious scientist can exclude the lab leak hypothesis. But I think that given all of the evidence that we have, which overall is scant, that the conclusion that the most likely hypothesis, and the one that perhaps we should consider proportionally devoting resources to, is some kind of natural zoonotic origin hypothesis. Again, it doesn’t exclude lab leak. It doesn’t dismiss lab leak. But it does reckon with the likelihood that lab leak is a less parsimonious explanation for how this virus emerged into the human population.
GOLODRYGA: So, Yanzhong, if I could just jump in quickly on that, because as a journalist myself—and I know for my network and every—all of our competitors, and in print media as well—while both theories were presented and put out there, will agree with Dr. Rasmussen that the predominant view of all of the experts that we had on was that this was a natural zoonotic jump. I mean, in retrospect, should we have given more weight early on to both possibilities? Would that have made this less political?
HUANG: That’s a great question. In fact, I want to—as a non-scientist, I want to share with you my experience weighing that lab leak hypothesis. Just first came out, you know, I remember it was, like, February in a Council on Foreign Relations meeting. One of our members actually raised that question. I said, you know, that was a hypothesis. Is there an investigation? But on many occasions, you know, in early 2020, you know, when I wanted to raise that thing as a potential—or legitimate hypothesis, I was sort of discouraged. In one case, you know, that was by a moderator—you know, basically they didn’t want to even go further to examine that question.
You know, so—and they also, you know, in terms of these two open letters from the scientists—the Lancet letter and the Nature letter—sort of also gave us non-scientists the impression, you know, that there was indeed a consensus among the scientists, you know, that this must be a natural spillover event. You know, and that lab escape was extremely unlikely.
GOLODRYGA: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot to learn, you know, in how we covered it as well and lessons learned going forward, not only from the medical standpoint but how we communicate to viewers and the public, right? I think lessons—a lot of lessons to be learned, to go around the world.
You want to move onto our next question?
STAFF: We will take our next question from Krishen Sud.
Q: Yes, hi. It’s Krishen Sud from Sivik Global Healthcare.
I have a couple of questions. One, is it—is gain-of-function research done in many labs globally? Or is it in, you know, very few labs on a global basis? And the second question I have is, how common is it for viruses to escape labs? From what I’ve read, it’s not that unusual. So it would suggest that, you know, it can happen. And the third question, you know, it was touched on in this—in this discussion was, you know, to compare this with Ebola I thought was a little interesting. You know, the resources of the Chinese government to find the intermediate animal or whatever is much more significant than anything that has been done vis-à-vis Ebola, is my guess. So why haven’t they been able to find, you know, the intermediate whatever animal, I guess, that could have caused this to happen? Thank you.
RASMUSSEN: So I can address the first two questions—how frequently is gain-of-function research done. Gain-of-function research actually just refers to anything that provides a new function for whatever you’re working on. The gain-of-function research in question here is specifically research that will result in a virus that is either more transmissible or more pathogenic in people. And so that research is actually not done very commonly at all. For example, I work on both SARS-coronavirus-2 and Ebola virus in containment. I have never done a gain-of-function experiment, by that definition. So it is not something that I think all virologists are regularly doing. I don’t know if that—if that helps the question—or, helps you understand a little bit more about gain-of-function research.
But lab leaks are a separate issue. They do happen. They can happen frequently. It sort of depends on what your definition of a lab leak is. If you’re talking about when people actually get infected with a known pathogen and potentially spread it to other people, that’s happened at least four to six times with SARS-coronavirus-classic. It has happened with other viruses in some rare circumstances. That is a lot less common, though. And it always has been caught, for the most part, with the exception of some—a bioweapons accident in the Soviet Union, as well as a human challenger vaccine trial experiment that did result in an influenza pandemic in the late ’70s. But those are extremely rare.
Much more common are various types of containment breaches. Somebody is handling a mouse, their glove breaks, the mouse bites them, they get some sort of cut or injury in the lab, they lose a tube, something like that. Labs get written up for this all the time. And one reason why we actually know about how many lab leaks there have been in the U.S. and elsewhere is that now these are reportable. And in fact, you have to report them, or you will lose the ability to work in containment. So they’re common, but they’re not. They’re certainly not common in the sense that they result in a major public health crisis or outbreak.
GOLODRYGA: And, Nicholas, I think you wanted to jump in too.
WADE: No, I think we’ve said everything we need to say on that subject. Leaks from labs do happen quite a lot, about one a year. So it’s certainly has the possibility that this virus also leaked from a lab.
HUANG: Yeah. I just want to point out sort of, like, an incoherence in this argument about this lab leak, right, on both sides—the U.S. and China, right? For example, when the Chinese government, the foreign minister spokesman pointed out that lab escape in Wuhan is extremely unlikely, but in the meantime they point to this temporary shutdown of the Fort Detrick lab and say it was very likely that the virus is coming from a U.S. military lab.
GOLODRYGA: Yeah. I mean, and I will say, honestly, that’s when things started to get very, you know, suspicious here, because you would think everyone’s sort of on the same page. And then when you come up with a suggestion like that, it doesn’t seem like you’re dealing with a serious player. And I think that’s how the politics really became hot and heavy, after that accusation.
Teagan, do you want to jump in with another question?
STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Neil Vora.
Q: Thank you so much. And fascinating discussion. I’m with Conservation International. I’m a physician. Was with CDC before that.
I wanted to press on the future consequences of determining the source of this current pandemic, because it seems to me, again, that it’s kind besides the point. We know that there’s a risk either way from both natural spillover and also from lab leaks. And so we have to pursue interventions in both areas. Both areas seem to be under-invested in. MR. Wade, before had said that it does matter because it’s like lighting—searching for a gas leak with a lighted candle. But, you know, he cited the statistic that there’s one lab leak per year, or something like that. And so doesn’t that just—doesn’t that just further the importance of improving biosecurity around the world?
And then my follow-up question is, how can we stop doing this type of research? We need to know the sources of future outbreaks, and epidemics, and pandemics, so that we can implement interventions to keep the world safe, and prevent future outbreaks? And I would give the example of Nipah virus. Without doing the research to find that Nipah virus originates in bats, we wouldn’t have the interventions to put lids over collection dishes under palm trees so that we know how to keep people safe from that spillover from bats to people.
WADE: Well, I would agree with the premise of the question, that whatever response to we take to this episode we need to be sure we don’t overreact. And we need virology and research to go on. We probably don’t need to confine all virologists to the highest level P4 safety labs, because that would slow down their work to a trickle. On the other hand, I think there are very considerable revisions that need to be make in the—in the safety levels that are designed to be requisite for each virus.
For example, Dr. Shi was following international rules when she was working in BSL level 2. She was very low safety levels for most of her cell culture work. And only in BSL-3 for animal work, handling these viruses. I think most people would say now that if you’re handling SARS-related viruses, BSL level 2 is too low. So we need a thorough oversight of this kind of research, and probably in general of all research in which wild viruses are brought back from the—form the wild to the lab, because they do increase risk, which you cannot say is minimal as long as you’re having any rate of lab leak.
HUANG: And, you know, I can answer the first question. You know, I think what this—all this discussion, discourse about the lab escape, you know, sort of—I think highlights the importance of the United States and China working together, right, on issues pertaining to biosafety and biosecurity, right? There are a lot of things the two countries could work together, right? To sharing biosecurity-related samples, genetic materials and data, developing protocols and countermeasures against biosafety accidents, et cetera. But the legitimization of that theory, paradoxically, also further raises the political stakes that make a scientific and sensible investigation to uncover the truth of the origins of the pandemic even less likely.
You saw how, you know, when Secretary Blinken, in this conversation with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, you know, asked for cooperation and transparency over the origins of the COVID. But Yang’s response, you know, was basically saying, you know, this absurd, you know, story the U.S. was spreading about the lab escape. And even worse, I think in this new development in the field, anti-Americanism in China and anti-Asia sentiment in the United States that further undermine the public support for bilateral cooperation over public health and other issues. You know, already if you see this Financial Times, you know, article suggesting, you know, how, you know, now we are in the United States and people are being accused of engaging something illicit, you know, may de-incentivize U.S.-China scientific cooperation in relative safe areas like, you know, public health infrastructure building.
MS. RASMUSSEN: Yeah. I agree with both of you, actually. I think that, you know, we really do need to invest and cooperate internationally to continue this research to prepare for pandemic threats, whether they come from a lab or whether they come from nature. This area has been under-invested in, including actual lab work. (Laughs.) And you can probably ask any virologist about that, who spends half their time writing grants trying to do that type of work. But I do think—I agree that we also do need to have a discussion internationally about the type of work that is safe to do, because it is so critical.
And as I said before, actually very little work qualifies as gain-of-function work. But I do agree that we should be working with any virus that has the potential to be a human pathogen that is an unknown quantity in a BSL-3 laboratory, to ensure that that extra level of protection is there. And while I definitely agree with Mr. Wade that it would be a disaster if we made everything have to be in a BSL-4 laboratory, I think that doing things with potential human pathogens in BSL-3 containment is actually quite feasible, because there are quite a few BSL-3 labs available. And it is relatively easy to at least use BSL-3 level protection for doing a lot of this type of work in the field, or in the lab.
So I think that, you know, yes to both of those things. (Laughs.) we need to prepare for all pandemic sources, and we also need to sit down and focus on cooperating and developing some international standards for biocontainment and for doing essential virology research safely.
GOLODRYGA: And I think you would all agree that the—what we want to avoid, and fear that could possibly happen, is that we see less cooperation among scientists around the world in their research as an aftermath of what, you know, is transpiring now, and with COVID.
Teagan, let’s go onto the next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Mary Kissel.
Q: Thanks very much. This is Mary Kissel. I was Secretary Pompeo’s right-hand person at the State Department.
I just wanted to thank the panelists for this discussion and their keen interest in the subject. We wished we had seen it a year earlier, but regardless it’s very important that we’re having this discussion right now. Judging by the comments, one might conclude—just looking at the scientific evidence, and this is true—that we can’t know if it came from the lab or if it came from the wet market. But we can’t divorce this scientific evidence from the other evidence that we have seen that does point to the lab. Whether it was the disappearance of scientists, whether it was the shutting down of communications, whether it was the extraordinary misinformation campaign, the coverup of PLA activity within the lab and, I might add, the very nature of the regime itself, which we have seen lie in almost every circumstance—whether it was SARS, whether it was in this circumstance, or in any other international arena around the world.
And one of the things that we struggled with, and I’m curious to hear the reaction of the panelists, is it’s nice to talk about cooperation but we have to acknowledge the reality of this incredibly totalitarian and brutish regime that lies. And so when you have a regime that lies. And so when you have a regime that makes a practice of not telling the truth, of obstructing the truth and spreading disinformation, that’s a member of an international organization like the WHO, does not follow the rules, it really—is there any reasonable way that you can rely on them to suddenly follow the rules? I don’t see any evidence of that. And if not, you know, don’t we need to think of other mechanisms outside of the WHO?
And one last note, the intelligence community is already setting us up to find no evidence of any lab leak, because they’re already leaking to the New York Times. They were predisposed to the wet market, and suddenly we have articles coming out that say, oops, only one intelligence agency believes in the lab theory. So I’m with Mr. Wade. I don’t think we’ll get any evidence, and we certainly won’t get a fair hearing from the IC, unfortunately. But please speak to the realistic mechanism through which we could investigate this problem, because it certainly is a danger to the world. Thank you.
GOLODRYGA: Yanzhong, do you want to jump in and answer that one?
HUANG: Sure. Yeah. I agree with, you know, that—much of what Susan (sic) just said. You know, but one thing’s very clear: The current approach doesn’t work, right? Because when you are pushing for more transparency, for further thorough investigation, well, that is antithetical, right, to the secrecy that marks authoritarian governance, you know, and thereby actually posing an inherit challenge, right, to one of Beijing’s core interests—that’s the permanent rule of CCP, right?
So you know, I think instead of—with all this inflammatory rhetoric and actions, we need—maybe it’s time to take actions to tone down the rhetoric, right? I’m not talking about appeasement, but at least, you know, current moves would make the CCP leaders feel even less secure, right? And you know, that is actually making them even less likely to cooperate. And so, you know, I think it is important now for both sides to tone down their rhetoric and figure out a way to focus on the cooperation, you know, that is in the interests of the United States. But in the meantime, without, you know, like, giving people—budging on the issues that are of crucial interest to the United States.
WADE: Bianna, I think Mary Kissel is quite right that the Chinese government will only cooperate if it feels it’s in its interests to do so. Which it may, if sufficient pressure is put on it in the coming weeks and months. There is a mechanism that might be tried, and that is to invoke the formula that both governments are to—are, to some extent, to blame. The Chinese government who allowed this leak to come place. The American government, after all, was funding dangerous research in unsafe conditions on Chinese territory.
So under the formula that both sides should carry the blame, then it might be possible for some kind of cooperation to be reached, perhaps at the level of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and maybe the Royal Society in Britain. And these scientific academies could, perhaps, exchange information in a less fraught way than the two governments. I mean, it’s a long shot, but it probably will be tried and is worth trying.
GOLODRYGA: And it probably wasn’t helpful, you know, from both sides either suggesting that this came from the United States, which was absurd, or, you know, the U.S. officials calling this the “Wuhan virus” or the “kung flu.” I think we are out of time right now, unfortunately. I knew this would happen because this is such an important and fascinating conversation. I’ll just leave it here. I mean, I remember following early on in this pandemic—on Twitter, a journalist that I follow half-jokingly said four years from now we’ll be wondering why we’re following all of these virologists and epidemiologists on Twitter. And I think part of the problem is that we weren’t in the first place. So we, as journalists and the journalist community, I think we have a lot to learn and focus on in knowing what’s going on in the world, and the research.
I want to thank our distinguished panel. Thank you so much. I learned a lot. I hope our audience did as well. We appreciate your time. Thank you and have a good night.
HUANG: Thank you.
RASMUSSEN: Thank you for having me.