Newsweek Magazine

Don't Believe Anybody Who Says They Know How COVID-19 Started. Here's Why

In early 2020, as the pandemic was looming, Dr. Anthony Fauci corresponded with a group of scientists about the possibility that the COVID-19 virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. After a conference call, the scientists published a paper downplaying the lab-leak theory.

Jim Jordan, a Republican representative from Ohio who began questioning witnesses on Wednesday in the House hearings on the origin of the pandemic, has his own way of weaving those facts into a narrative. It's a story of gross malfeasance, with Fauci as villain.

The best thing about the debate over the origin of COVID-19—or the worst thing, depending on your point of view—is that it provides great fodder for constructing narratives. Consider one alternative view of Fauci's actions. Amid the worst public health crisis in a century, perhaps it was wise of him to consult with evolutionary biologists and virologists about the possible causes of the pandemic. And although downplaying the lab-leak idea seems like bad policy in hindsight (which Newsweek reported in April 2020), at the time, with the U.S. depending on precious information from Beijing, it might have seemed smart to avoid alienating them.

We all tell stories, but when it comes to the origins of COVID-19, the possibilities are particularly rich—not just in the House chambers but throughout the debate. Over the past few years, experts seem to have gravitated to one side of the question or the other and dug themselves in.

They can do this because the debate lacks dispositive evidence one way or the other. There is no proof that the virus originated in a lab, and no proof that it emerged as a spillover from nature. What we have instead is a smorgasbord of facts from which to assemble arguments, one way or the other, to suit ourselves.

The indeterminate nature of the available evidence makes the origin question something of a Rorschach test. "It's all circumstantial, both arguments are circumstantial," says Dr. Kenneth Bernard, a physician and former pandemic czar in George W. Bush's White House. "That's the problem. There is no dispositive proof either way, so you can say anything you want—whatever kind of circumstantial evidence tickles your fancy."

The pattern was apparent in the reaction to the news last week that the Department of Energy had come out in favor of the lab-leak theory. According to the Wall Street Journal, some undisclosed new intelligence triggered the DOE to go from a neutral position to considering a lab leak "likely." The new intelligence had something to do with the CDC lab in Wuhan, CNN later reported

The DOE would be in a good position to have some original insight into the origins question. It runs a network of national labs and has an abundance of scientific expertise to draw on. But whatever this new intelligence was, it apparently wasn't significant enough to prompt a change of minds at the four U.S. intelligence organizations that hold to natural spillover or the two that have stayed neutral. The FBI, as Director Christopher Wray confirmed, remained unchanged in leaning towards a lab leak with "moderate confidence." Aside from the FBI, all the other groups have "low confidence" in their assessments.

Experts on both sides reacted to the news by sticking to their guns. Those who had previously opposed the lab-leak reiterated the strength of the scientific evidence in favor of a natural origin. For instance, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, went on CNN to say, "The overwhelming evidence supports natural origins." (Later in the interview he stopped short of saying the matter was settled—"I don't want to say consensus"—instead referring to a "feeling" among scientists that the virus originated naturally.)

Dr. Anthony Fauci
U.S. Rep. James Comer (R) (R-KY) and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) participate in a Republican-led forum on the origins of the COVID-19 virus at the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021, in Washington, DC. The forum examined the theory that the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/Anna Rose Layden/Getty

The lab-leak proponents, by contrast, tended to leap on the DOE announcement as confirmation. Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former official at the State Department and National Security Council, has been outspoken about the need to investigate a lab leak. He pointed out on Twitter that the DOE is "the most technologically advanced and scientifically proficient part of the US gov't, employing many of the world's most sophisticated scientists," and called their assessment "highly significant."

Neither side has been able to marshal an argument that convinces most people. The "scientific" argument that Hotez and others often make relies on two studies by Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, and his colleagues, published in the journal Science in July. The team analyzed data on COVID-19 cases in Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak and found that they clustered around the live-animal market, which is consistent with the theory that the pandemic started as a natural "spillover" from wild animals. The idea is, raccoon dogs or some other mammal picked up a precursor virus from bats and were brought by traders to the Wuhan market.

Many scientists took the studies, together with what's known about the wild-animal trade in Wuhan, as strong evidence that the virus likely originated in the market, by natural means, rather than in one of Wuhan's virology labs. Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and biosecurity expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, points out that it's easy to underestimate the role of the live-animal trade in China, which by some estimates is as big as the U.S. beef industry. It is also illegal, which, Gronvall says, offers a compelling motive for disinfecting the markets in the early days of the pandemic: not so much to destroy forensic evidence relevant to the origin question, as lab-leak proponents have asserted, as to cover up evidence of the illegal trade in animals.

The Worobey studies, and other evidence in favor of a spillover, haven't settled the matter. Early cases may have clustered around the market, some critics say, because the market worked as a super-spreader to amplify an outbreak that started elsewhere. Critics also question the completeness of Worobey's data, citing reports of earlier cases in the preliminary report commissioned by former Senator Richard Burr.

The lab-leak proponents are in even worse rhetorical shape: they have no bedrock report to point to. The Burr report, which was completed in October but never released, contains plenty of evidence, drawn from public sources, that could bolster a lab-leak case, a scientist who has reviewed the full report told Newsweek. It documents a major biosecurity mishap (possibly a lab leak) that took place in Wuhan in the early fall of 2020 and includes evidence that China began developing vaccines (possibly for COVID-19) before the pandemic was first recognized. (Newsweek reported in April 2020 on suspicions of a lab leak and on Fauci's funding the WIV.)

The report is exhaustive—it runs in excess of 200 pages and includes more than 1000 references. Although Burr's office released a pared-down preliminary report in October, the full report currently sits under lock and key, in political limbo, with no release date in sight. In any case, the report did not uncover proof that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, came from a lab, says Newsweek's source (who requested anonymity to discuss the issue).

What lab-leak advocates need is direct evidence of a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2 that was developed or stored in a lab in Wuhan. Given what's at stake, it's highly unlikely that China would willingly disclose such evidence, even if it exists. Testimony or leaked documents could conceivably do the trick, but these are probably not within reach of the House Republicans' subpoenas. And even so, China would most likely deny it.

What the spillover advocates need to prove their case is to identify the intermediary host—the mammal that caught a precursor of SARS-CoV-2 from bats and transmitted it to humans. No such animal has yet turned up. It could take years to find—scientists have been trying for nearly a decade to figure out how Ebola jumped to humans, with no luck. Finding an intermediary is the best bet to settling the issue once and for all—for most people, anyway.

That is, if the public still believes what scientists say. Although scientists still poll relatively high—much higher than, say, journalists—their credibility has taken a hit during the pandemic. In December 2021, 77 percent of respondents to a Pew survey said they trust scientists, down from 87 percent in April 2020. The steepest decline came among those who say they trust scientists "a great deal," from 39 percent to 29 percent, while those who have little to no confidence in scientists rose from 12 percent to 22 percent.

More worrying, opinion skews by political affiliation. Only 34 percent of Republicans have a "great deal" of trust in scientists, versus 64 percent of Democrats, according to AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And public opinion has swung toward belief in a lab origin of COVID-19. A poll by Morning Consult found that 44 percent of Americans believe the pandemic started as a lab leak and only 26 percent believe it started naturally. Finding proof of the origin of COVID-19 is important, but without it the nation can still take steps to prevent a future pandemic—as long as the public trusts science and scientists enough to listen.

For the moment, House Republicans have the wind at their backs. The truth may be farther off.