A letter published in a leading academic journal criticizes the findings of a World Health Organization-led report
Members of the World Health Organization visited the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan in February to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.
Prominent scientists are calling for a deeper investigation into the origin of Covid-19, including the possibility that a laboratory accident released the new coronavirus that caused the pandemic.
In a letter published Thursday in the journal Science, an international group of 18 biologists, immunologists and other scientists criticized the findings of a report released in March by a World Health Organization-led team into the pandemic’s origin and called for a more extensive evaluation of the two leading hypotheses: that the pandemic virus entered the human population and began spreading after escaping from a lab or after jumping to humans from infected animals.
The WHO-led team, which included scientists from China and several other countries, reported no definitive proof of either hypothesis. Yet, the scientists wrote, the team nevertheless concluded that an animal origin for the pandemic was the likelier scenario and devoted only four out of the report’s 313 pages to the possibility of a lab accident.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the scientists wrote in the letter.
The signatories include highly regarded scientists who are actively involved in studying SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the pandemic, such as Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher who has collaborated with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the institution at the center of debate over the lab hypothesis; and David Relman, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
The letter is the latest and one of the most visible pushes for a more rigorous investigation into the origin of the pandemic following the WHO-led team’s report. The report has been criticized for deeming a lab accident “extremely unlikely” despite a lack of access to records or data to reach such a conclusion.
Scientists have also expressed concerns that the team was unable to obtain raw epidemiological data on the first confirmed cases in China or possible earlier ones.
Following the release of the report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for further investigation into the lab leak hypothesis. The U.S., U.K., and several other governments pressed for a more robust, transparent investigation with greater access to data, though they didn’t directly push for a full inquiry into the lab hypothesis. The U.S. drafted recommendations to submit to the WHO for a second phase of studies into the pandemic’s origin.
On Wednesday, an independent panel established by the WHO—to review how Covid-19 was allowed to spread—concluded the virus spread from animals, and didn’t recommend any updates to current lab safety protocols.
The WHO is reviewing recommendations from the March report and will prepare a proposal for the next set of studies, which will be presented to the director-general for his consideration, a spokesman said.
In Thursday’s letter, the scientists called for a “transparent, objective, data-driven” investigation “subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”
“Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public,” the authors wrote. “Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
The authors of the letter said their aim isn’t to back one hypothesis or another, but to push for more scientific rigor, bolstering the calls made by Dr. Tedros as well as the U.S. and other governments. Dr. Relman, one of the lead authors of the letter, said the researchers chose a scientific journal for the publication to make that point.
Scientific journals evaluate the content they publish using an extensive review process known as peer review, in which independent experts assess the data and evidence provided by the investigators. By publishing the letter in such a journal, the authors aimed to keep the debate over the pandemic’s origin in the world of scientific data.
“I wanted this to be addressed to my fellow colleagues, the working scientists, and use a venue they respect and see as a place for scientists to talk about science and the importance of science,” said Dr. Relman said of the debate over the pandemic’s origin. “Our message here is wherever the data takes us, thou shalt go, and only go to the degree that the data allow.”
Dr. Baric didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Robert Garry, a Tulane University School of Medicine virologist who wasn’t involved with the letter, said it “distracts from important work needed to identify the source of SARS-CoV-2” by including the lab leak hypothesis. “The letter in Science completely misrepresents the outcomes of the WHO report,” he said. “The WHO report significantly adds to the large volume of epidemiological and genomic data that supports the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 from a zoonotic reservoir.”
The idea for the letter grew out of informal conversations and emails among some of the scientists about how the search for the origin of the pandemic has become a “controversial and heated topic,” said Dr. Bloom, one of the authors of the letter.
Based on the scientific data, both theories of the origin are plausible, he said, adding, “In many questions of science, it turns out the right answer is we don’t know the right answer and we need to look into it more.”
—Drew Hinshaw contributed to this article.