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expert reaction to media reports about the US Energy Department report on origins of SARS-CoV-2

According to news articles, the report from the US Energy Department suggests a lab leak is most likely, but with low confidence.


Prof David Robertson, Head of Viral Genomics and Bioinformatics, MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR), University of Glasgow, said:

“I think it’s important to point out here that this report hasn’t been shared yet so we can’t yet fully know what the report does and doesn’t say, or whether there is nuance in their top line or conclusions.  It would be very surprising if there’s been any new information at this point that would be convincing evidence in support of a non-natural origin of SARS-CoV-2.  In general there has been a concerted effort by some to push the lab leak theory as if there’s some kind of equivalence in the evidence which is not the case.  Indeed there’s been an accumulation of evidence (what we know about the viruses biology, the close variants circulating in bats and locations of early human cases) that firmly points to a natural origin centred on the Huanan market in Wuhan city; Stuart Neil and I discussed this1 recently here —  That this strong evidence continually gets lost when SARS-CoV-2 origins is discussed is promoting a false narrative of doubt on the science when in fact we know a lot about what happened, arguably more than other outbreaks.”

1 The papers that are most relevant to the video are:


Prof Alice C Hughes, Group Leader Biodiversity Analytics of Terrestrial Ecosystems (BAT) group, University of Hong Kong, said:

Comments on the media reports about the US Energy Department report:

“I am basing my comments on the media and scientific reports I’ve read, as well as ongoing discussions with collaborators, rather than the US Emergency Department report, which I understand is not publicly available.

“There has been no new release of data from China for over a year.  The US Energy Department lacks the expertise to really assess data quality, and as there has been no further data from within China, there is nothing new being reported here.

“The state of the science remains the same, new analysis of existing data, including our own continues to lend weight to a zoonotic source as the origin of the pandemic.  It should also be noted that most other agencies have not changed their hypothesis on the origin of the pandemic.

“The conclusion appears not to be based on new evidence, and remains the weaker of the two main hypothesis of the origin of the virus.

“That the department note “low confidence” in their conclusion seems to suggest they acknowledge that they have insufficient data to come to any firm conclusion.”

Comments on scientific research about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in general:

“The political situation has prevented much of the work that started on virus origins from continuing, thus we are unlikely to see any new work that concludes the origin, with the only exception being if the shared NIH-Wuhan datasets show something notable.  I find this unlikely, because whilst it is known they were conducting coronavirus research for many years prior to the pandemic the urge to collect data from wild bats in early 2020 would be unlikely if they already had data on the origins in their collection.  There remains substantive data that wildlife within the Huanan market is the source of the pandemic, and the market at a minimum acted as an amplifier for the virus.  Swabs from the market, including the corner where raccoon dogs were kept tested positive for the virus in very early 2020.  It should also be noted that whilst statements such as “the wet market reopened in April” may be partially true (Wuhan remained on lockdown until April) the selling of wildlife was not permissible at this point due to new laws on the selling of wildlife for food.

“Undue weight is still being given to some individuals who have published popular books on the topic or make regular and very public statements, but who do not have significant first-hand experience in China, and have not published findings through peer review.

“Recent analysis suggesting features of the virus “could not have evolved naturally” are not in line with research in the region, which shows viruses from native wildlife can show the same features.  Most analyses trying to support a gain of function hypothesis in particular are based on trying to fit data to a hypothesis, and fail to control to and compare with viruses in native wildlife.

“Questions about origins and scientific research is of course right and useful, but politicisation of the issue, and making it an ideological issue, has unfortunately only driven tensions and made the collection of primary data to understand risk of zoonotic spillover more challenging.  We are very unlikely to get further data to irrefutably prove either theory, so the best approach is to work to prevent risk of future pandemics by better understanding the risk of natural spillover, and increasing lab safety to remove any risk of spillover in such settings.

“What we do know from scientific research?

“1) Coronaviruses are naturally circulating in bats, bats can even host more than one coronavirus simultaneously and show no symptoms, providing ideal conditions for recombination of novel viruses (and amazing immune systems of bats mean that they are frequent reservoir hosts).

2) Coronaviruses are common in native wildlife, especially bats, but spillover to humans is rare, and human to human transmission is rarer.  Intermediate hosts are likely to have been involved in the transmission chain.

3) No feature of even the early versions of the virus are unique to Sars-CoV2, and no features suggest either “it must be artificial” or any pre-adaptation to humans (this may be that it was not detected until it had become better at spreading between humans.

4) Small carnivores are very good at spreading Coronaviruses to each other and humans.  Poor biosafety and the laundering of wild animals into farmed populations provides ideal conditions for spillover, and there is recorded evidence of these animals showing signs of respiratory infections.

“Based on this there is a high level of evidence for a natural origin, likely including the trafficking and sale of wildlife.  This is consistent with MERS and SARS.  Whilst a leak is possible, and that lab was working with bats and coronaviruses there is no data to show a demonstrable link, and there is still sufficient possibility of a natural spillover.  It should also be noted that whilst many hosts are both more common and diverse to the South, this also means that the largely Han Chinese population would have no immunity to a coronavirus which populations to the south may be immune to, especially as in many rural areas bats, and other wildlife remain commonly consumed-and thus many of these people may have already been immune.  Such immunity may also explain why initial waves of the virus had little impact in much of tropical Southeast Asia where wildlife is more often consumed, as the virus may have been more like native viruses circulating in wildlife.”



Declared interests

Prof Alice C Hughes: “No COI.  Some of my work has been on bats and covid in China, and until the end of 2021 I was working in Yunnan (as I had been since 2013).  These are my comments based on my work and that of various collaborators, as well as my experiences within China and how things operate within China.”

For all other experts, no reply to our request for DOIs was received.


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