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US National Academies try to cool down Covid-19 origins debate

Research leaders urge use of scientific principles, as political tension mounts over lab-leak theory

The heads of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have waded into the fraught public debate over the origins of the Covid-19 virus, Sars-Cov-2, appealing for ongoing investigations to be guided by scientific principles.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks over suggestions that the coronavirus initially spread from a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China, with some in the research community saying calls to investigate a lab leak are “toxic”, while others claim the scientific community is trying to shut down debate.

“Misinformation, unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks on scientists surrounding the different theories of how the virus emerged are unacceptable, and are sowing public confusion and risk undermining the public’s trust in science and scientists,” academies heads Marcia McNutt, John Anderson and Victor Dzau said in a joint statement on 15 June.

“We urge that investigations into the origins of Sars-Cov-2 and Covid-19 be guided by scientific principles,” the three presidents of the National Academies said.

Investigations inconclusive

A study into the origins of Covid-19 carried out by the World Health Organization and China in early 2021 was inconclusive due to a lack of evidence, but nonetheless strongly indicated a natural source for the virus. The WHO’s director general subsequently said that more evidence was needed to evaluate the possibility of a laboratory accident, a position echoed by governments in the United States and European Union, as well as some in the research community.

US president Joe Biden recently gave his intelligence agencies until 24 August to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on the pandemic’s origin.

“Data accessibility, transparency and full cooperation from China, of course, will be essential for a proper and thorough investigation,” wrote McNutt, Anderson and Dzau, alluding to questions over whether Chinese officials provided as much information as possible about research taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the research institution at the centre of theories about a laboratory origin.

Political flashpoint

Republicans on the House science committee have asked the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for information on whether it is reviewing US grants to the WIV, in light of the institute’s reputation for ‘gain-of-function’ research. Such research involves experimenting with viruses to understand how they could become more deadly.

While the WIV received funding from the National Institutes of Health through a grant to the not-for-profit EcoHealth Alliance that was controversially cancelled in 2020, this was not for gain-of-function work.

Republican politicians have been pushing hard for a more aggressive investigation into the origins of the virus, which is becoming a political flashpoint. On 11 June, Democratic committee leaders turned down a Republican appeal for a Congressional investigation.

“Your apparent effort to use the issue of the origin of the virus in order to shift accountability from [former US president Donald] Trump and his top political advisers…is an irresponsible gambit that we urge you to abandon,” wrote James Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus, and Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The top Republicans on both committees, Steve Scalise and James Comer, hit back, saying Democrats “refuse to confront communist China” and that Republicans “will continue to press onward in our calls to investigate the truth into the origins of the coronavirus”.