Top Scientists Call For Further Investigation Into Virus Origins Ahead Of World Health Assembly
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team in early February, 2021. Critics say WIV officials did not cough up the laboratory’s secrets.

A group of 18 prominent scientists, primarily based in the United States, have called for further investigations into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, including that it could have been created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab, in a letter published on Thursday in the journal Science. 

The letter, organised by David Relman, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, and Jesse Bloom, virologist at the University of Washington, is seen as giving weight to calls to include all hypotheses about natural and laboratory spillovers.

They believe that previous “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable” and were not “given balanced consideration” by an earlier joint WHO-China report.

In the letter, they demand that the two hypotheses “be taken seriously…until we have sufficient data.”

As of Thursday, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 3.3 million lives globally, and the scientists point out that: “Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreak.”

Among the signatories is Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina and one of the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses, who has collaborated with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the institution at the center of the lab spillover hypothesis. 

Lack of Sufficient Evidence to Rule Out Lab Leak Hypothesis

The letter echoed the statements made by the US government, the EU, several other countries, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO, who said: “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The scientists said: A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimise the impact of conflicts of interest.”

“Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public,” the authors stated, pushing for greater scientific rigour. “Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”

Efforts to Depoliticize Origins Investigation – But Topic will be Central to Political Debates at Next WHA

The letter is the first to be published in a scientific journal. Previous letters from other scientists requesting further investigations into the origin of the virus were published in news outlets.

“Our goal in putting out a letter that was signed solely by practising scientists…and published in a scientific journal was to emphasise that this is a scientific question and it needs to be addressed in the same way we address all scientific questions,” Bloom told Seattle Times in an interview. 

“I wanted this to be addressed to my fellow colleagues, the working scientists, and use a venue they respect and see as a place for scientists to talk about science and the importance of science,” Relman told the Wall Street Journal

“Our message here is wherever the data takes us, thou shalt go, and only go to the degree that the data allow,” he added.

A separate group of international scientists released three letters in recent months. The latest charted a political and technical way forward, calling for more explicit language in a draft World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution, a broader mandate for the origins investigation team, and an overhaul of the methods and protocols used in the virus origins research.

The appeals for further investigations are growing, coinciding with the upcoming (WHA), set to convene from 24 May to 1 June. The 74th WHA will likely feature contentious debates among member states over how the virus origins investigation should proceed. 

Image Credits: WHO, CNN.

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