What triggered the COVID-19 pandemic or what has been the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, have become one of the most burning questions in the scientific community presently.
Several coronavirus-related issues have become hotly contested, fraught with implications for international relations and, in the United States at least, laced with conspiracy theories and politically motivated posturing.
Two theories have been doing the round since the early days of the pandemic regarding its origin.
The first theory, which has also been widely accepted until now, suggests that the virus was transmitted to humans from some type of bat, possibly at or near a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The second theory suggests that the virus is man-made and that it leaked out of a lab in Wuhan.
This theory has also gained wide acceptance in the recent past as several laboratories study and manipulate coronaviruses very similar to SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan.
However, there are two adjacent questions to this lab-leak theory- If it was accidentally leaked, had it been genetically modified as part of legitimate scientific research? And, could the virus have accidentally leaked out without the Chinese government is aware of it, or was there a cover-up?
The Chinese government, however, vehemently opposes the lab-leak theory, which is again extremely controversial and politically loaded.
Meanwhile, organisations like the World Health Organisation have simultaneously tried to address the issue diplomatically.
The lab-leak theory received more prominence recently when US President Joe Biden directed the Intelligence Community to inquire on the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and asked them to report back to him within 90 days.
This proclamation arrived just after the intelligence community found a handful of witnesses on the incident of several researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology falling ill in November 2019 and who had to be hospitalised later.
Dr David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, noted that for both scenarios, natural and lab-leak, it’s “all” circumstantial.
“Finding the answer can help prevent the next pandemic,” reported CNN quoting Relman.
“For the natural spillover hypothesis … first, nearly all previous outbreaks of emerging infectious agents have arisen through natural means … so there’s history,” the report further added.
“Second … all of [this virus’] nearest known relatives are bat coronaviruses, so we have to assume that at some point in the past, this virus was in a bat. We just haven’t found the bats that currently carry this virus, from which the original encounter may have taken place,” Relman was further quoted by CNN.
Relman further said that some environmental evidence suggests that the virus was found near markets in Wuhan.
“The problem with that fourth form of evidence is it’s not clear that those telltale signs of virus arose after the outbreak began, or before,” CNN added quoting Relman.
Relman, in support of the lab-leak theory, said, ” The place where all of the nearest coronaviruses are known to exist in nature is about 1,000 miles from the place where the first human cases arose. There is a big geographic gap.”
“Second, in the place where the disease started, we have some of the world’s largest collections of bat samples, and in particular, of bat samples containing these very bat coronaviruses — the nearest known relatives. They are in Wuhan, in a laboratory. So that’s fact number two,” CNN further reported quoting Relman.
He concluded by saying that the most important thing, apart from unearthing the origin of the virus, is to know how it came to human contact leading to the pandemic.