Wild vs lab? Does it matter?

Actually, lab would be overwhelmingly better news.

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here. (I am also part of the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium. The views expressed here are my own and should not be taken as representing organisations I work for.)

Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? A year and a half into this mess and we still don’t know. In March, the WHO announced that all hypotheses remain open. But they had concluded that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway” while “direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway.” But the “lab escape hypothesis” hasn’t been dismissed and the other day, the WSJ reported that several people at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had become sick in November 2019. That is going to reignite this discussion of Covid’s origins.

There are many motives to find out Covid’s origins from curiosity to a desire to assign blame. But, as is my want, when talking about whether we need to know something, the right question to ask is how useful that information would be. How would it matter for our decisions to know whether Covid originated in the wild (i.e., “naturally”) or from a lab (i.e., “artificially”)? I should note that those terms are in “.” because there is no such thing as a purely “natural” or “artificial” origin story. In each case, there are things we can do. The issue is how knowing more changes what we want to do.

The wild hypothesis

The hypotheses that SARS-CoV-2 arose naturally — that is, directly from an animal to us — starts with bats. Indeed, Deb MacKenzie, whose great book from last year is still excellent reading, states emphatically:

The Covid-19 virus comes from bats. So did SARS. So do MERS, Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, Hendra, and Lassa viruses. So does hepatitis C, which an estimated 71 million people are living with worldwide. After biting the head off what he had assumed was a rubber bat a fan threw onstage during a 1982 concert in Iowa, heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne needed the long, painful series of injections required to prevent rabies—another bat virus. (Today the treatment is a little easier.)

This is quite an opening paragraph for a chapter entitled “Don’t blame the bats.” I’m not so sure but we will come back to that.

Without going into details, bats house coronaviruses. Moreover, in places where there are lots of bats, those viruses are found in humans. However, the hard part is getting to human-to-human transmission. It seems that for the virus to evolve to that point, it usually goes through another animal. This includes civets, pangolins, horses and camels. But it is possible for it to come directly from bats. People own them, travel to places where they are, and sometimes consume them. It is also important to note that there are lots of bats. A quarter of all mammals are bats (but there are more rodents). They also fly. All this adds up to being a breeding ground for viruses.

The lab escape hypothesis

The lab escape hypothesis is very simple. There are labs working with coronaviruses to study them in the hope of understanding more about them to help prevent pandemics or manage them. One of those labs is the Wuhan Institute of Virology which is located where the virus was first reported.

Here is what the WHO says about this hypothesis:

In their 120 page March report, that is all they say on the matter. You will note that the WSJ report casts doubt on some of the basis for the WHO’s assessment here.

Here is my reading of the lab escape hypothesis. This most likely occurred by accident. The lab was dealing with viruses and also bats that carried them. (You will note that bats don’t get off the hook in this hypothesis.) The viruses were being selected to examine the characteristics that drive human to human transmission. Something happened and, more than likely, no one knew about it even as people fell sick with flu-like symptoms. Why? Because it was winter and people, including lab researchers, get the flu. Eventually, it spread throughout the city and beyond. In other words, it is highly likely that the virus was out before the lab recognised any accident — if they ever did.

Why do we care?

With that, let’s work out what would change about our future decisions if we could distinguish these hypotheses. Here’s Deb MacKenzie again:

If we want to understand this pandemic, and what we need to do to stop the next one, the connection between bats and viruses needs to be explored, for three reasons. One, if we’re going to even keep a watch for the next pandemic, we’re going to have to work out what exactly is going on with bats and all these viruses. Two, we must learn which of their viruses might jump to us and take measures to prevent and prepare. And three, and most importantly, we must generally learn how to act on this kind of information. We had it for Covid-19, and we didn’t use it.

She goes on:

That’s right. A lab in China, in work confirmed by virologists in the US, found a virus very similar to the one that causes Covid-19 in bats in 2013—a full seven years before this pandemic swept the world. Both Chinese and American scientists clearly warned that this kind of virus could well cause a pandemic. And yet, no serious action of any kind was taken. It was no one’s job to do that. This is one of the things we need to change.

And, yes, the lab in China she is referring to is the lab at the heart of the lab escape hypothesis. This was the lab with the greatest expertise in the world on coronaviruses and their origins.

So let’s look at how we would use that information.

If bats are to blame, what should be done? One extreme would be to kill all of the bats. But they are arguably a “keystone” species at the heart of many ecosystems. However, if bats were to blame for Covid, I suspect that bats might be nervous.

At the other extreme, the response is that this is all a result of human environmental pollution and climate change which creates conditions that increase the probability that viruses transmit from bats eventually to people. The solution there is to stop pollution. I discussed this when reviewing a John Oliver segment on that topic. There I regarded this as an expensive way to manage pandemics compared to dealing with transmission after a virus has lept to humans.

Instead, the likely correct response is if wildlife transmitting to humans is to blame then the actions that we place most weight on are those regulating the domestication and consumption of wildlife. It is not without irony then that we all spent the first month of the pandemic watching The Tiger King. That was a sign that, if wildlife is to blame, then we have to dramatically improve how we interact with wildlife. That is a complex issue, in part, because how we deal with wildlife varies dramatically around the world. It won’t be cheap to find a solution here but it could significantly reduce the chances of another pandemic.

What if, on the other hand, the lab escape hypothesis is true? First of all, it wouldn’t change anything about how we manage the pandemic right now. Like with the bats, the virus is out there and all of the actions we take would not change one bit if we knew the virus came from a lab.

However, as we move back in time, the more useful that information might have been. Clearly, it would have been critical to know soon after an escape happened. This would alert everyone to the problem more quickly.

Even in the first few months, however, as the virus had just turned into a pandemic information would have been useful. We have already seen how the medical community were very slow to understand and acknowledge how the virus was transmitted between people and how useful that information would have been. If it had come from a lab and that had been known quickly, those presumptions that held the medical community back on airborne transmission would have melted away. The sad irony about this is that it is precisely that sort of information that was the point of studying these viruses in a lab setting!

Thus, for managing the current pandemic, right now, this information isn’t useful. And, let’s face it, it is not clear that any good would come from it immediately. People are unlikely to be good about finding this out. Blame will be cast. And more to the point, it will likely be cast inappropriately. This would be a terrible outcome. It could lead to violence or maybe even war. Some of the blame would fall on science. To be sure, that may well be warranted. But again, the costs could be very large. Given all of this, it is not hard to see why many are trying to push the blame into bats and downplaying other hypotheses. Those strategies only work for a time.

What about the future?

I think we do need to actively pursue the truth here. One thing is for sure. The lab escape hypothesis is more provable. There is a good chance someone already knows if it is highly likely or even true. What would it mean if we found that the lab escape hypothesis was true?

It would be overwhelmingly good news. That may seem surprising but hear me out. Here’s the thing, as I already pointed out, dealing with the wild hypothesis is hard and not necessarily possible. Instead, we accept viruses will come and double down on efforts at prevention of them getting out of hand.

But if the lab escape hypothesis is true, sure we should still work on management, but it opens up the possibility, and, indeed, probability, that we can reduce the chances of another Covid-19 like pandemic by overhauling how we deal with labs that handle viruses. In other words, it is infinitely more doable than dealing with nature.

It would take a longer post to consider how to better manage labs. For starters, the risks are global and so regulation has to be global. It must subvert national authority in the same way we do that for nuclear or chemical weapons. The constraints to doing all that will be political including the whole mess of blame that would arise if we discovered the lab escape hypothesis was true.

The first step, however, will be the painful business of discovering the truth. Right now, I fear that the conditions aren’t present for that job to be done properly.