The news that the U.S. Department of Energy now believes with “low confidence” that the COVID-19 pandemic “most likely” was the result of a laboratory leak in China, resulted in a firestorm of debate across the internet.
First reported by The Wall Street Journal and not independently confirmed by ABC News, the DOE, which oversees a system of laboratories in the U.S., changed its stance from undecided — becoming the second agency, after the FBI, to believe a lab accident resulted in the global health emergency.
Four other U.S. agencies believe the virus was a result of natural transmission and that the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans at a wet market. Two other agencies are undecided.
“There’s just no consensus across the government,” John Kirby the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications told reporters Monday. “The President believes that it is important that we get to the bottom of this.”
Without seeing the report that made the DOE reach its conclusion, “it really becomes impossible to speculate,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an ABC News contributor.
“Without it, it’s very hard to make any type of judgment on what took place,” he said. “And I think, ultimately, all hypotheses remain on the table. While this headline is very attention grabbing, it doesn’t really change the game in any significant way.”
What we know from the report
The Journal acknowledged that it has not seen the report and relied on the account of people who have read the document.
One of the only details known is that the conclusion was reached with “low confidence.”
“The fact is that the Department of Energy changing its position to ‘low confidence’ means that the amount of evidence in the direction of lab leak or natural spillover is still very limited,” Brownstein said.
It also means the DOE is not dismissing the natural transmission theory.
“Academic molecular biologists are of this position, that this was a natural event, just as the other two coronavirus transmissions from wild species to humans were: first SARS, and then MERS,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News.
This is in reference to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which resulted in a global outbreak in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which caused an outbreak in 2012. Both are “cousins” of SARS-CoV-2.
“Now, we have these two positions,” Schaffner said. “We don’t know on what basis this last report came to its conclusion, but I don’t think it’s going to resolve the issue to the satisfaction of everyone.”
What the report doesn’t tell us
Because the public hasn’t seen the report, it’s unclear what evidence caused the DOE to change its mind, where that evidence came from and what the term “lab leak” even means.
Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said when people hear “lab leak,” there’s a few scenarios they might come up with.
“One is that people imagine that someone in a lab was engineering mutations into a coronavirus genome, and making a bioweapon or something like that, and that it leaked out,” he told ABC News. “Others might be thinking that people were collecting specimens from bats or other animals and growing them in the lab and then some of that virus leaked out.”
Ray continued, “I can imagine that some people are imagining they were just handling bats and someone in the lab got infected in the lab and then went out. There’s a wide range of things that might be meant, but because this report has not been shared, we don’t know what they meant by that.”
Lab leak and natural transmission?
Experts told ABC News that even if the COVID-19 pandemic did occur as the result of a lab leak, it doesn’t mean that natural transmission didn’t occur.
In fact, it could mean a hypothetical patient zero was infected at the laboratory before spreading the illness elsewhere.
“You could see them operating in sequence,” Schaffner said. “Let’s say the lab leak were correct and the virus then began to infect people and some of those persons then went to the wet market.”
He continued, “And that wet market then became an amplification location where many, many people were infected, and that then set off the epidemic. That’s a possibility.”
Why knowing the origins matters
The experts said we may never know the origins of SARS-CoV-2, similarly to how we don’t know the origins of other viruses, such as Ebola.
However, knowing the origins can help us determine if biosafety protocols weren’t followed so they can be addressed and revised, if necessary.
“I think we want to know that publicly funded research or that all research is done responsibly,” Ray said. “And we want to know whether there are dangers associated with this type of research…I think we’d want to know if that is the case. If it turns out that that virology research does pose a risk, then we want to understand those risks and how best to manage them.”
Ray also added that research into SARS and MERS helped pharmaceutical companies develop a vaccine, so virology research doesn’t necessarily equal dangerous.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News. He acknowledged there is a scientific and public health benefit to knowing the virus’s origins but said the knowledge won’t change how the world was disrupted.
“Some people may say that it’s important for accountability or reparations of some sort, but, for me, it’s already happened, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for why we don’t need to continue to try to control this as a global community by the tools that we have,” he told ABC News.
He also said the real focus should be learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic so we can be better prepared to respond to future epidemics and pandemics.
“You have to be open to the possibility of either situation, but it shouldn’t take away from what do we have to do now, which is the continue to make sure that everyone’s protected, not only from this, but from future outbreaks and pandemics,” Chin-Hong said.