Did COVID originate in a lab? Yale researcher calls for probe into origins of the virus

Photo of Jordan Fenster

A Connecticut immunologist is among a group of scientists calling for an independent investigation into whether COVID-19 occurred naturally or was created in a laboratory.

The call for an independent probe comes as President Joe Biden ordered the national intelligence community Wednesday to “redouble” their efforts to collect and analyze information about the origins of the virus.

“What we're calling for is to have an unbiased team of scientists to investigate the origin of the virus,” said Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale University School of Medicine.

Iwasaki was among a multinational group of 18 researchers who published an opinion piece this month in the journal Science calling for a “proper investigation into the origins of the virus,” which they said “should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”

The purpose, Iwasaki said, is to prevent future pandemics.

“I believe it's in the benefit of everyone to understand where the virus originated, so that we can collectively control such a pandemic from happening again,” she said. “If we don't know the source of the virus, how can we contain a similar kind of exposure next time? So I think the entire world would benefit from learning about the origin of the virus.”

Iwaskai described a missing link between COVID-19 as it has been seen in wild bat populations and the virus that has, so far, infected 168 million and killed 3.49 million people worldwide.

“Usually, when there's an outbreak, scientists are able to trace the outbreak from an animal all the way to humans, because it leaves a lot of traces,” she said. “When it first jumps to a person and then the next person, the next person, you can see how the virus evolves to become more and more infectious.”

But with the coronavirus that caused the pandemic, there are missing pieces.

“We have the SARS-CoV-2 virus that we can sequence now, and we have a close relative of that virus that was identified in the Wuhan Institute of virology,” Iwasaki said. “But that close relative is still about 40 years away from becoming SARS-CoV-2. So there's a big gap in between the ancestral virus and what's currently circulating.”

At the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about pangolins as a possible middle step, allowing the virus to mutate from bats to humans, but Iwasaki said there is no evidence yet to support that conjecture.

If that were the case, there would be an intermediary virus that was evolutionary connected to the original virus and the one that caused the pandemic. That intermediary virus has not yet been found.

“We don't have any direct link right now from bats to humans, and how it actually transmitted,” she said. “There's this sort of window that we're missing as to how the virus actually entered the human population.”

If, in fact, it was a naturally occurring virus, Iwasaki said, “we need to identify what the intermediate host might be, so that we can limit access to that kind of transmission route.”

Lab accidents, however, have happened before, and if the virus was developed in a laboratory, Iwasaki said an investigation might reveal the need for “tighter regulations or different methods of research that will prevent this kind of leak from happening.”

But in order for those safeguards to be established, Iwasaki and her colleagues believe that an independent group, perhaps under the auspices of the World Health Organization, should be given the freedom to investigate.

“I really hope that such an investigation will be done in a completely unbiased way, without involving any parties that have a conflict of interest of any sort,” she said. “That is why we really need people who are not even linked to any of these institutions or companies or anyone who might benefit from an investigation.”