Opinion | Where did covid start? We’re asking the wrong question.

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The Energy Department, in a recent classified intelligence report, concluded with “low confidence” that the coronavirus originated from an accidental lab leak, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Republicans have latched onto the news as confirmation of their beliefs and are clamoring to use it against perceived enemies, including China and scientists such as Anthony S. Fauci.

But the department’s conclusion, which is at odds with other intelligence assessments that support animal-to-human spillover, answers the wrong question. At this point, a far more useful analysis would focus on what should be done to prevent future pandemics in the case that either hypothesis is true.

Of course, I agree that identifying the cause of any new pathogen — especially one that has caused as much death and destruction as covid — is of utmost importance. But more than three years into the pandemic, there is no consensus from the scientific or intelligence communities on the coronavirus’s origin.

A 2022 report from the World Health Organization said that available data pointed to animal spillover, even though the host animal that infected humans nor the location where this occurred has yet to be identified. Given that there was even less evidence of a lab leak, the chair of the WHO expert team concluded that “at this point, the strongest evidence is still around zoonotic transmission.”

Some U.S. intelligence analysts disagreed in an assessment released in October 2021. They favored the lab-leak theory based on speculation that lab workers could have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus in the course of research with “inadequate biosafety conditions.” But the analysts also admitted that they had “no indications that [the lab’s] research involved SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus.”

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Federal agencies remain divided: Two agencies, including the Energy Department, side with the lab leak hypothesis; four others and the National Intelligence Council prefer animal spillover, though also with “low confidence.” (Two others have not taken a position.)

The main reason getting to the truth has been so difficult is that the Chinese government has actively obstructed international investigations, refusing to disclose key data and going so far as to block a WHO team from entering China. This behavior is reprehensible, but because it’s unlikely to change, I believe we need to shift our primary question from “what caused the coronavirus?” to “if either hypothesis can be true, then what?”

The lab-leak theory has credence because we know laboratory accidents with dangerous pathogens can cause catastrophic outcomes. In 1978, a 40-year-old medical school employee in Britain died of smallpox that’s thought to have originated from a laboratory there. Numerous other accidents involving viruses from dengue to anthrax to SARS have been reported, including in the United States. Regardless of whether this coronavirus resulted from a research mishap, there’s clearly a need for additional biosafety regulations and oversight.

There are also fierce debates about “gain of function” research, in which pathogens are modified to become more transmissible or more virulent. Scientists themselves do not agree on whether the humanitarian benefit is worth the potential risk.

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I can see valid points on both sides. One way to thread the needle is to increase review of gain-of-function studies. The Department of Health and Human Services must review any federal government-funded study “reasonably anticipated” to generate a pathogen that might cause a pandemic. But since the mandate was established in 2017, only three projects were reviewed and all were approved. An improved process should capture more studies, including those done in the private sector and overseas. This should occur even if gain-of-function research didn’t cause covid.

In the meantime, the world must be on guard for more zoonotic diseases. It’s estimated that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. The Marburg virus, now causing an outbreak in Equatorial Guinea, is believed to be spread by fruit bats to monkeys and humans. Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, has been transmitted to humans from nonhuman primates and pet prairie dogs. And avian influenza, which has spread like wildfire in wild and domestic birds in recent months, has caused 458 human deaths over the past 20 years.

Regardless of whether the coronavirus also jumped over from an animal host, much more needs to be done to address the root causes of interspecies pathogen transfer. Animals have come closer to human habitats because of deforestation, wildlife “wet markets,” farming practices and climate change. Reducing future zoonotic transmission requires an understanding that the health of humans and that of animals and their shared environment are inextricably linked.

It’s possible — and even likely — that we might never have the definitive answer of what caused covid-19. Doubling down on a hypothesis might score political points, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to keep humans safe. So instead, let’s adopt an “all of the above” strategy: ensure laboratory biosafety, prevent further zoonotic spread and improve global cooperation.

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