I’m going to regret writing about this, but it’s not a topic to be ignored. Where did the current coronavirus come from?
If you ask that question, you get all sorts of answers from all sorts of people. Let me downgrade some of those right up front. To start at the far end of the fever scale, I do not think that this virus is some sort of deliberately engineered (and/or deliberately released) bioweapon, and I am simply not going to give that theory more time here today. But that still leaves a lot of possibilities open, and I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to sort those others out.
The other end of the scale is that this is a virus that evolved into its present form in an animal host and then made the jump into infecting humans through sheer coincidence and bad luck. That does happen, and it has happened many times throughout history, so that absolutely cannot be ruled out. But there are a lot of possibilities in between those two. As the world knows, there is a research facility in Wuhan that has been studying viruses (including coronaviruses), so we also cannot rule out the possibility of an accidental escape from such a site. And there’s also the possibility that such a virus might then be different from wild-type, depending on what sorts of work was done on it. Viruses most certainly have escaped from research facilities before, and this is not a crazy idea.
From here we get into a lot of details about the codons in the viral sequence, the presence of a furin cleavage site, similarities (and differences) between the current coronaviruse and the closest wild-type relatives. This Medium post by Nicholas Wade goes into many of these, but you should know up front that many virologists believe that he overstates the case (such as in the rarity of that furin cleavage site). I also should link to this letter that has just appeared in Science, calling for greater clarity on the whole issue, and I don’t think anyone can disagree that it’s needed:
As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general (5), the United States and 13 other countries (6), and the European Union (7) that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation 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. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. 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.
From what I can see, this is pretty much exactly what hasn’t happened yet. I have to note that the actions of the Chinese government have not been characterized by the openness called for above. And as long as that is the case, suspicion will be hard to dispel. Their documented actions against Chinese physicians and scientists who spread early word of the pandemic do not inspire confidence, either. But at the same time, some politicians have also (for their own benefit) jumped at the chance to make accusations against the Chinese. This stuff has done nothing but sow fear, hatred, and confusion – what was partly the plan on the part of the people promulgating it, of course. That’s been in all directions, too, because there are many people who probably have refused to take the lab-leak idea seriously just because some demagogues and fools love it, too. This world would be a lot easier to understand if assholes were always wrong about everything, but that’s not the case. To be completely even-handed about it, there are (for example) plenty of people in both the Trump administration and in the Chinese government that I put in that category. They can’t both be right, though, can they?
So it’s all an open question, unfortunately. And I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s an open question, and that we need a lot more hard evidence before anything can be said for certain. People up and down the spectrum of opinion need to realize that this could still go in several different directions, and that no matter what the real answer turns out to be – assuming we get one – that it’s going to make some people angry. I just hope we do get one, because it’s really, really important.