Did COVID-19 originate with bats or scientists? Most experts continue to contend that the most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is a natural zoonotic “spillover” event between an animal reservoir (most likely bats) and humans. But over the last year of the pandemic, another theory has gained momentum: The SARS-CoV-2 virus may have resulted from an accident in a laboratory in China where scientists were working with closely related viruses. In the wake of the World Health Organization-led mission to Wuhan to examine the origins of the pandemic, proponents of the lab-leak theory have charged the investigative team with conflicts of interest, and suggested that the team’s efforts failed to rule out the possibility of a lab release. Some have gone on to claim that scientists have maintained a conspiracy of silence about the possibility of a lab release in order to protect their funding or avoid a backlash from their government.
The desire to identify the origins of the novel coronavirus is perfectly understandable. COVID-19 has killed millions of people and upended everyday life. There’s an intuitive sense that finding out how the pandemic began might help to prevent another one from occurring. The Biden administration is redoubling efforts to determine the origins of COVID-19 after the intelligence community indicated that it had insufficient information to make a determination.
However, while answering the question of where the novel coronavirus came from is important, many of the most important policy decisions the United States needs to make to prevent future pandemics do not depend on viral origins. Very little about pandemic response or preparedness for future pandemics turns on the particulars of how this one started. Laboratory biosafety was already an issue before the pandemic, and the origins of this particular virus don’t change the need for reform to prevent these rare but potentially catastrophic events. Regardless of how COVID-19 began, U.S. policy priorities should focus on both identifying and preventing the spread of zoonotic pathogens and bolstering safety and security in high-containment laboratories.
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