Unlocking the mysteries of the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 and launched a global pandemic in March 2020, has become one of the most burning questions in the scientific community. But the effort, like so many other coronavirus-related issues, has become hotly contested, fraught with implications for international relations and, in the United States at least, laced with conspiracy theories and politically motivated posturing.

Two competing theories have dominated the discussion since the early days of the pandemic, when the world was first made aware of the newly emergent, “novel” coronavirus. The first, and the one that was accepted as the likely story for a long time, is that the virus came from nature, jumping from its natural reservoir in some type of bat, through a still-unknown intermediary animal and into humans (possibly at or near a “wet market” in Wuhan, China), among whom it then spread like wildfire.
The second theory is that it leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, where there are, in fact, laboratories that study and manipulate coronaviruses very similar to SARS-CoV-2. Related to the lab-leak theory are two adjacent questions: If it was accidentally leaked, had it been genetically modified as part of legitimate scientific research? And, could the virus have accidentally leaked out without the Chinese government being aware of it, or was there a cover-up?

Roiling controversy

The lab-leak theory is controversial and politically loaded. The Chinese government vehemently denies any such possibility. In the United States, unsubstantiated claims gave it aspects of a partisan witch hunt early in the pandemic. And some in the international community, including the World Health Organization, have simultaneously tried to address the question and diplomatically tiptoe around the quagmire without offending anyone.
During a world pandemic — a public health crisis which would eventually lead to more than 3.75 million deaths throughout the world — the politics became overwhelming. It became so taboo, in fact, that it was difficult to discuss openly, much less evaluate scientifically, without igniting a firestorm, having motives questioned and generating layers of accusations and counter-accusations.

This story would not be complete without mention of two pieces of federal intelligence: a US State Department Fact sheet, published on January 15, 2021, in the last week of the Trump administration, that noted the federal government believed that there were sick researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology before the first clusters of Covid-19 cases were identified; and a classified May 2020 report from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory acknowledging that the lab-leak theory was a possibility.

And there’s more: The continued pushback by 14 governments, including the US, on the results of a WHO fact-finding mission to China in early 2021, that found the lab-leak theory is “extremely unlikely” — pushback because of a lack of transparency by the Chinese government while the WHO’s delegation was conducting its research in China. That research was essentially limited to conversations with doctors and workers at the Wuhan lab, with limited access to data and samples, WHO now admits.

The ongoing debate even reached President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who along with his emails has managed to become a target of both Republicans in the US, who accused him of flipflopping on the issue and of being too cozy with Chinese researchers, and the Chinese state media, which accused him of “fanning a huge lie against China.”