Who’s Afraid of the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

Sam Reeves, MVC Writer

Every 3 months, like clockwork, a new trove of previously unpublicized information comes out that nudges us closer and closer to uncovering the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2: A peculiar set of  February 2020 pneumonia records; a 2017 SARS-like coronavirus research grant; fragments of the virus detected in a European city’s April 2019 sewage samples. Whatever it is, it always seems to hint that something more is there, and that a verdict will be reached. 

This is a humiliating cycle to witness. It is incalculably unlikely that there will ever be a conclusive, satisfying answer to the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Not only because of institutional mud, but simple impracticality. If it was of zoonotic origin, any biological record substantiating this would have been overwritten by now, and the World Health Organization is beginning to admit as much. Human contacts to animal populations introducing the virus to these populations makes it impossible to determine the direction of causality; did the bat first infect the human, or did the human infect the bat? 

Conversely, if it was a lab leak, the bureaucratic records substantiating this would have been erased since before the virus had a WHO-recognized name. The smartest people in the world work in these labs, but it is thought that they would make an oopsie this big and not pick up their breadcrumbs? Run the counterfactuals; if they had not covered their tracks, it would be known by now. Or, even if they had not, it somehow has not been publicized yet, and if it does get publicized in the future, who’s to say those documents are legitimate? Because China will certainly claim they are not, and can you blame them? Is there someone with worse enemies than Xi Jinping?

And it is okay to not have answers sometimes. The virus is here. It’s there. It’s everywhere. More importantly, it is not going away if it is discovered that it came from a lab. It is also not going away if it is discovered it came from a bat. What matters is the future. Not much is known about the future, but what is known is that there will be more viruses. If it is somehow proven that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a lab or spilled over zoonotically, that does not render the other source an incredible threat; both have produced pandemics before. 

Quick lesson in sins of the past, and mulligans given but not leveraged: This is not the first novel coronavirus epidemic. It’s the third: SARS-CoV-1 in 2002-2003, MERS-CoV in 2012. While neither of these viruses escalated to pandemics, their emergence indicated the possibility of one.

But nature’s warning shots were mistaken for a clip of blanks. COVID’s body count is now one seventh of the Black Death’s, done in a third of the time. It is the third virus capable of doing what it is done, nearly two decades after its cover was blown, and still there was no preparation made for another novel coronavirus. For all the risk gain-of-function research takes on, the number of pandemics it has prevented is zero, perhaps even negative one.

The same mistake cannot be repeated. Another pandemic is likely, but not inevitable.

We should not let locals or tourists freely crawl caves filled with novel zoonotic respiratory virus-laden bats, and we should not let virologists play with their food in BSL-II’s. The canonical origin of SARS-CoV-2 does not impact the risk of perpetuating either of these practices. Hopelessly chasing down which one produced SARS-CoV-2 costs virologists valuable time and resources that could be used to prevent SARS-CoV-3.