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COVID-19

Continued discussion on the origin of COVID-19

The origin of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the COVID-19 pandemic remains unresolved. Although many scientists believe that the likelihood of zoonotic transfer is far higher than a lab escape, the compromise report from the World Health Organization (WHO) did nothing to help resolve the controversy and probably made it worse, as the investigative team did not have access to all of the records that would allow a lab escape to be ruled out. This week, Science published a Letter from many prominent COVID-19 researchers calling for a more complete investigation into the origin. As the Letter says, consideration of the lab accident was “insufficient” in their view because it was not given equal weight by the investigative team.

The controversy has been fueled of late by journalist Nicholas Wade, whose story includes comments by David Baltimore, the co-discoverer of reverse transcriptase and a class of viruses that includes HIV. Baltimore indicates that existence of the furin cleavage site in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 suggests a non-natural origin. On the other side, immunologist Kristian Andersen explained in a Twitter thread why the furin cleavage site is not unusual for a natural virus, and along with many other experts has asserted that there is no direct evidence that suggests a lab escape.

The goal of Science’s Insights section is to be the best place for scientists to talk to each other about science. So, given the importance of this issue and the breadth of expertise and outstanding qualifications of the authors, it was an easy decision to publish the Letter. The authors acknowledged that demanding transparency from China—while acknowledging the important role of Chinese researchers in tackling the virus—is a nuanced and important task given the discouraging rise of anti-Asian sentiment over the past 18 months.

I am asked frequently whether Science has a position on various things: Is all COVID-19 transmission airborne? Is phase separation important in cell biology? Are there parallel universes? In general, Science’s role is to provide a forum for these issues to be hashed out by others and for the editors to remain as neutral as possible while qualified experts generate consensus. Eventually, consensus emerges and Science takes a position on behalf of the community: Yes, life got here by natural selection. Yes, the universe is expanding. Yes, human activity is contributing substantially to climate change.

But while consensus is emerging, the human beings who work at Science have their own opinions. And for this inorganic chemist who has been writing about virology for a year, my opinion is that the zoonotic origin of COVID-19 is far more likely, but good science requires that the laboratory escape idea be rigorously investigated before being ruled out. China should allow for a dispassionate examination of the data and allow scientists to do what they are trained to do. I thank the Letter writers for their contribution and hope their words will be heeded.