Ask SciMoms: What is the COVID lab-release theory? What should I do?

City of Wuhan in China, which is at the center of the lab-release theory

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, there have been questions about its origins. Recently, there is renewed attention on the “lab leak” or “lab-release theory”. Comedian Jon Stewart took to The Tonight Show to rant about this theory and seemed to fully believe in it. In this post, we outline what this theory is and how it may impact us. 

Much of the focus on the origins of COVID have centered around the city of Wuhan in China. This is because some of the first known cases of COVID-19 in humans were identified there, suggesting that it may have originated in Wuhan or in areas closeby. 

The origins of COVID

The most widely accepted hypothesis on the origins of the COVID-19 virus is the “zoonotic theory”, meaning that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans. This is a well-recognized phenomenon also known as zoonosis or zoonotic spillover. When a pathogen (i.e. germ) is transmitted from an animal to humans, it can cause zoonotic diseases

There are well-publicized examples of zoonotic transmission including avian and swine flu, as well as rabies. These are just a few of the many known examples of zoonotic diseases. Some zoonotic pathogens can also be passed from person-to-person. For coronaviruses, there are seven types that currently infect humans, and all seven came from “bats, mice or domestic animals”. 

Scientists can also trace the ancestry or origins of pathogens and how they relate to one another. This is done using the same techniques that allow us to trace our family tree and ancestry by looking at our DNA and how its sequence resembles the DNA of our relatives. Scientists looked at the RNA sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus found in COVID-19 patients and compared it to other known coronaviruses. They found that SARS-CoV-2 was 96% identical to a coronavirus found in bats. They hypothesized that the virus may have been transmitted from bats to humans, possibly through a secondary host. 

When scientists began looking for the source of the virus, much of their focus was centered on a market where live animals are sold in the city of Wuhan, China (also known as a “wet market”). Many of the very early COVID-19 patients had contacted animals or purchased meat at this market. However, the exact source of the virus has not yet been found. The city of Wuhan is also the center of the “lab-release” or “lab leak” theory. 

The Lab-Release Theory

Wuhan is also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This institute studies many different viruses, including bat viruses found in China. Because of the institute’s location and focus of research, it has been central in the theories regarding lab-release. 

And here’s where things get murky: the theories on lab-release vary from plausible to completely unfounded conspiracies. On one end of the spectrum, we have the plausible hypothesis that someone working at the institute may have unknowingly contracted a coronavirus, or perhaps an infected animal from the institute escaped. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the conspiracy theory that the institute knowingly and purposely released a modified or engineered virus to impact the US economy or US elections. And then we have every permutation in between. 

There are two important variables in these theories: was the virus engineered? Was its release intentional? Whether or not the virus was engineered or manipulated was investigated very early in the pandemic: based on the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, there is no data to suggest that it has been engineered. None of the features that are commonly found in engineered viruses are present in the virus. 

The question of whether its release was intentional is a bit more complex because it is nearly impossible to find out. As previously mentioned, it is quite plausible that someone in the lab may have been exposed to a bat virus. Or an animal may have escaped. Or contaminated waste was not properly treated. But these scenarios are a far cry from the conspiracy theory that a government sponsored program in China intentionally released the virus to crash the US economy or impact US politics. President Trump played into this conspiracy by trying to blame China for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, labeling it the “China Virus”. Yet no such evidence exists.

By nearly all accounts, the government of China has not been transparent in the investigations into the virus’ origin, complicating the process of determining the origins of SARS-CoV2. Early in the pandemic, the Chinese government clamped down on whistleblowers who were trying to sound the alarms about COVID. China also admitted to destroying early COVID samples, although the nation claims that this was done for biosafety reasons. Much work remains to be done to understand how the virus spread in the city of Wuhan. China’s willingness to be more transparent will be critical for future investigations.

How does the Lab-Release Theory impact us?

Finding out the origins of SaRS-CoV-2 is important for scientists who study emerging infectious diseases to better understand this disease and to prevent future outbreaks. But these understandings do not impact how we manage risk in our day-to-day activities, nor does it change the fact that there’s a global pandemic occurring right now. How the pandemic started has no bearing on how we manage this current pandemic.

Imagine that there’s a destructive storm headed for your house. It’s worth understanding how the storm started, whether its level of destruction was worsened due to climate change, whether the government notification system was sufficient, and the true extent of the storm. These data can help prevent future storms and ensure that homes are built to better withstand devastation. But none of these factors change the fact that there’s a storm headed for your house right now. Your response would probably be the same regardless of the aforementioned factors: find shelter, ensure you have emergency supplies, and take the necessary precautions depending on the nature of the storm. 

The origins of COVID do not impact the fact that we need to be following the basic necessary precautions: vaccinate, wear masks, ventilate, and keep your distance when indoors. The origins of COVID may never be fully understood, yet we have the tools in our hands right now to bring the pandemic to an end.