Science

A Different Theory of COVID-19’s Origin

A mask and a syringe are seen on the ground.
A discarded face mask and a syringe lie on the ground on April 1. DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images

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Alina Chan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a genetic engineer who began doing some of the most controversial research into the coronavirus from her home. It started with the virus’s genetic blueprint: She’d studied SARS-CoV-1, which spread to humans back in 2003 and is closely related to the newer virus. What stood out to Chan was that it looked like the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, wasn’t having to adapt to spread like SARS-CoV-1 did, and she couldn’t figure out why. Chan typed up her findings and included scenarios that could explain them, including the possibility that a non–genetically engineered virus was grown in a lab and accidentally spilled. Her paper never claimed that the lab leak was the only explanation for the pandemic—just one that deserved consideration. But the political landscape last spring made that careful suggestion radioactive in the scientific community. Before she published her paper, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton had suggested that COVID was manufactured as a bioweapon from Chinese scientists, and then–President Donald Trump said he had reason to believe that the outbreak originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. All this meant that a lot of scientists were reluctant to go anywhere near Chan’s hypothesis when it finally published, yet she insists that it’s more than possible to take the “lab leak” theory without playing into or encouraging such dangerous notions. I spoke with Chan on Tuesday’s episode of What Next to further dig into the hypothesis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Alina Chan: When you compare SARS-CoV-1 with SARS-CoV-2, it is striking that there is this period of rapid mutation adaptation to the host that you could see in SARS-CoV-1 and not the new virus.

Mary Harris: So with SARS-CoV-1, you could see it like changing day to day, trying to figure out how to stick around its host.

Not day to day, but between patients. Based on the sequences they got from patients at the time, you could see it picking up dozens of mutations, functional mutations, within the first two or three months. But the novel virus was genetically stable. It was changing very little.

You published this paper back in May 2020 where you said maybe we should consider the idea that this coronavirus came from a lab. At the time, what was the main theory about where COVID had come from?

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It had been announced by the Chinese government and in January that most likely this virus had come from illegally sold wildlife in a wet market. But over time, that story seemed to disintegrate. And by May, about two or three weeks after my paper came out, the Chinese CDC director actually announced that the market was a victim. He said it was most likely a cluster.

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Where did the Chinese CDC director think it had started?

He didn’t provide any answers, but at the time the genetic and the epidemiological evidence did not point to the market being the source of the virus. In Wuhan, there were early versions of the virus that didn’t seem to pass through the market. They seemed to precede or be in parallel to the market.

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I want to be really clear that I still think wildlife trade is a plausible scenario. But I think it’s essential that we have a real investigation, a credible one that is free from political influence, into whether this virus could have come from a lab or from the wildlife trade.

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Most of the questions that you and others are raising revolve around the Wuhan Institute of Technology. Tell me more about it.

It’s China’s first BSL-4 laboratory. It’s a very prestigious, highly funded institute that studies viruses.

BSL-4 is the highest level of international bioresearch safety. You can have potentially dangerous stuff in there. And researchers are definitely studying viruses that look a lot like COVID, right?

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Yes, they have the closest virus genome to SARS-CoV-2, and it’s called RaTG13. That has its own interesting story because it’s linked to these cases among some miners in South China. The WIV was one of the labs that followed up on those mysterious cases. They collected numerous viruses from that mine where the miners had been sickened with the SARS-like illness, and the closest relative was from that mine.

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My understanding is there was a researcher there who would literally go into caves and gather up the virus and bring it back to the lab.

They had a lot of younger scientists and personnel getting into the caves, which are not like tourist destinations where people can arrive by the busload. They have to really squeeze in there and catch and sample all these tens of thousands of bats. And they’ve been doing it for the past decade. Sometimes they’re in full hazmat suits, but sometimes they don’t wear PPE when they do collections.

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Prolonged contact with so many bats means these scientists are exposed to whatever the bats in these caves might be carrying—and any potential exposure goes home with them to Wuhan. And the bats studied in South China can’t fly as far as Wuhan.

The question is, what was the conduit for a SARS-CoV-2 virus to get all the way from South China up into central China, where Wuhan is? This lineage of viruses that can only be found like a thousand kilometers down south. Wuhan is not a place where you have millions of these viruses residing in bats.

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In addition, there’s research from this institute showing that it’s pretty rare for humans to actually be infected by bats with the coronavirus, so it was unlikely that a human got infected and got all the way up Wuhan and started an outbreak. But years before COVID became what it is today, U.S. Embassy officials had visited the institute and sent warnings back to Washington saying there wasn’t enough safety at the lab. Have you had a chance to look at those cables and think about the implications there?

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I looked at those cables, but actually the thing that was most interesting to me was that in one of the cables, they said that China was prototyping the first global virus collection program. So then what happened to that? Where’s the prototype? Where is this virus collection? The safety issue is important, but it’s also important to note that labs around the world, they all have safety issues, and it’s not clear which labs are having how many accidents a year. But these processes do have accidents.

Just because accidents happen.

We have all of these virus hunting programs spread everywhere, especially in developing countries. They’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s not just that many, many groups of scientists all draw from this money. There’s a disincentive for them to advocate for an investigation into origins because it could shift the perception of their work as life-saving, as pandemic-preventing, to one that could actually result in a pandemic and in lives lost.

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