Is it possible that coronavirus could have escaped from a lab? The answer, according to many scientists is a resounding “No.” Alina Chan is a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chan had studied SARS in 2003. She also understands the science about how the virus mutated very quickly. Earlier this year, she came up with three possible explanations for COVID-19. One of her three possibilities is that of COVID being man-made.
Chan co-authored a paper with Shing Hei Zhan. On May 2, she uploaded the unpublished biology paper, known as a preprint, to an online platform that accepts articles from all fields of science for open peer review. Chan later tweeted out the news and waited. Immediately after her paper was published, Chan’s theory was met with opposition from the world’s preeminent scientists saying that her third possibility that coronavirus being engineered by humans is too wild to be believed.
Then early this month, Rowan Jacobsen of Boston Magazine wrote a piece titled, “Could COVID-19 Have Escaped from a Lab?” In the article, Jacobsen asked if the skepticism from the world’s scientists is more about science or censorship. Jacobsen had done relevant research in the past. He also understood how a lab works. Jacobsen is more interested in scientific objectivity and opposed to conspiracy theories.
In his piece, Jacobsen said this about Chan.
Chan had come to my attention a week before the Newsweek story was published through her smart and straightforward tweets, which I found refreshing at a time when most scientists were avoiding any serious discussion about the possibility that COVID-19 had escaped from a biolab. I’d written a lot about genetic engineering and so-called gain-of-function research—the fascinating, if scary, line of science in which scientists alter viruses to make them more transmissible or lethal as a way of assessing how close those viruses are to causing pandemics. I also knew that deadly pathogens escape from biolabs with surprising frequency. Most of these accidents end up being harmless, but many researchers have been infected, and people have died as a result.
For those of you who may not be familiar with gain-of-function (GOF) research, GOF involves manipulating viruses in the lab to explore their potential for infecting humans. GOF is the euphemism for government-sponsored biological research conducted for biodefense purposes and aimed at increasing the virulence and lethality of pathogens and viruses. The deadly science-enhanced pathogens can and do escape into the community where they infect and kill people. Below is how our National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes GoF:
“Certain gain-of-function studies with the potential to enhance the pathogenicity or transmissibility of potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) have raised biosafety and biosecurity concerns, including the potential dual use risks associated with the misuse of the information or products resulting from such research.”
According to NIH, on October 16, 2014, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the launch of the U.S. Government (USG) gain-of-function (GOF) deliberative process to re-evaluate the potential risks and benefits associated with certain GOF experiments. During this process, the USG paused the release of federal funding for GOF studies anticipated to enhance the pathogenicity or transmissibility among mammals by respiratory droplets of influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses.
Even though the NIH paused the funding of GOF studies here in the United States, Newsweek reported that just last year (2019), “the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the organization led by Dr. Fauci, funded scientists at the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutions for work on gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses.”
In an extensive report from Newsweek, Dr. Fauci played an important role in promoting the GOF research. He also backed controversial Wuhan Lab with U.S. dollars for risky coronavirus research. In 2019, the NIH, with the backing of NIAID, committed $3.7 million over six years for research that included some gain-of-function research work. The program followed another $3.7 million, a 5-year project for collecting and studying bat coronaviruses, which ended in 2019, bringing the total to $7.4 million.
Many scientists have criticized the GOF research because it creates a risk of starting a pandemic from accidental release.” Below is how Newsweek describes the roles Dr. Fauci played during the period:
“A decade ago, during a controversy over gain-of-function research on bird-flu viruses, Dr. Fauci played an important role in promoting the work. He argued that the research was worth the risk it entailed because it enables scientists to make preparations, such as investigating possible anti-viral medications, that could be useful if and when a pandemic occurred.”
The GOF research is so risky that it worried even some seasoned researchers. Newsweek said that over 200 scientists have called for the work to be halted. The problem, they said, is that it increased the likelihood that a pandemic would occur through a laboratory accident.
However, Dr. Fauci would have none of it. Instead, he defended the continuation of the GOF research work, saying:
“[D]etermining the molecular Achilles’ heel of these viruses can allow scientists to identify novel antiviral drug targets that could be used to prevent infection in those at risk or to better treat those who become infected,” wrote Fauci and two co-authors in the Washington Post on December 30, 2011. “Decades of experience tells us that disseminating information gained through biomedical research to legitimate scientists and health officials provides a critical foundation for generating appropriate countermeasures and, ultimately, protecting the public health.”
Now back to Jacobsen’s piece in Boston Magazine, here is he said about the possibility of the virus originating from the Wuhan lab. Jacobsen said:
When word spread in January that a novel coronavirus had caused an outbreak in Wuhan—which is a thousand miles from where the bats that carry this lineage of viruses are naturally found—many experts were quietly alarmed. There was no proof that the lab was the source of the virus, but the pieces fit.
The last sentence is what caught our attention. Jacobsen went on to say:
Despite the evidence, the scientific community quickly dismissed the idea. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, which has funded the work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other labs searching for new viruses, called the notion “preposterous,” and many other experts echoed that sentiment. That wasn’t necessarily what every scientist thought in private, though. “They can’t speak directly,” one scientist told me confidentially, referring to the virology community’s fear of having their comments sensationalized in today’s politically charged environment. “Many virologists don’t want to be hated by everyone in the field.”
In the end, it seems most scientists are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being hated by others. In the end, Jacobsen praised Chan for standing out on Twitter and daring to speak truth to power. Jacobsen closed with the following advice from Chan:
“Scientists shouldn’t be censoring themselves,” she says. “We’re obliged to put all the data out there. We shouldn’t be deciding that it’s better if the public doesn’t know about this or that. If we start doing that, we lose credibility, and eventually we lose the public’s trust. And that’s not good for science.” In fact, it would cause an epidemic of doubt, and that wouldn’t be good for any of us.
You learn more about Alina Chan by visiting her Twitter page below.
Teaser for a phenomenal article by @rowanjacobsen in @BostonMagazine about SARS2 origins research and why it’s a challenging space to be in. Blown away by how well the article explains the mysteries surrounding COVID-19 and what’s at stake for science. Digital version in October! pic.twitter.com/p8I9DoZRey
— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) September 7, 2020