The origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic continues to intrigue, though the “lab leak” theory seems to be gaining currency, going by recent statements from the US. 

The latest is from Christopher Wray, Director with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation who “confirmed that the Bureau has assessed that the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic likely originated from a lab incident in Wuhan, China,” the FBI tweeted, quoting from an interview its chief had with an American media outlet. Just days ago, the US Department of Energy had reportedly alluded to the “lab leak” theory.  

Responding to the multiple reports on the possible lab-leak, a World Health Organization spokesperson told businessline, “WHO has seen media reports but has not received any information on this particular assessment. WHO and SAGO will keep examining all available scientific evidence that would help us advance the knowledge on the origin of SARS CoV 2 and we call on China and the scientific community to undertake necessary studies in that direction. Until we have more evidence all hypothesis are still on the table.” 

China has in the past denied such reports.  

Research links  

Late last year, an interim report from a US Senate Committee also pointed to a research-related incident putting the lab leak theory front and centre of the contentious discussion .“Based on analysis of the publicly available information, it appears reasonable to conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment. However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy,” said the report from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Minority oversight staff, calling for more information on the subject.  

This report had gone into the issue of “gain of function” research , that involves modifying viruses/ bacteria, in labs. It mentioned the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) advanced research on corona viruses and alleged issues with biosafety. It even spotlighted a possible US connection, saying, “The EcoHealth Alliance NIH grants and DARPA grant proposals, in partnership with the WIV, sought to collect and conduct genetic recombination experiments on SARS-related coronaviruses with specific traits that made those viruses a “high-risk” for zoonotic spillover into animals and humans. SARS-CoV-2 shares many of the traits these researchers were interested in finding in SARS-related coronaviruses or interested in engineering such traits if they were not found naturally.”  

Earlier reports had suggested, the virus possibly jumped species and infected humans at a wet market (where live and dead animals are sold) in the region.  

Four years, still a pandemic

Investigations by international experts had initially said a lab-leak was highly unlikely. But the WHO Chief had then clarified that all hypotheses were on the table. As the world enters the fourth year of the pandemic, the WHO has left unchanged, the status of Covid-19 a global public health emergency.  

It was in December 2019, that the WHO country office in China had picked up on “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan, reported by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Further probing revealed reports on this cluster of cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan. And in March 2020, it was classified a pandemic.