Are we any closer to solving the COVID origin mystery? An update on investigations.

WASHINGTON — Three years after the world first learned about a novel pathogen called SARS-CoV-2, questions persist about where, and how, the virus that has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide — including more than a million Americans — originated.

Many experts continue to believe that the virus arose in the wild, jumping to humans at a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. A recent analysis concluded that raccoon dogs were the most likely “intermediary species” the virus used to enter the human population, but the market origin hypothesis still leaves many critics skeptical.

The other possibility is that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were known to conduct risky gain-of-function research that supercharges viruses in order to understand how they may behave as they evolve in the real world.

Once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the “lab leak” hypothesis has gained credibility in recent months, as evidence has mounted in favor of human involvement.

A new Senate report

A technician wearing blue scrubs and blue nitrile gloves adjusts his plastic visor over his glasses.
A health official conducts mandatory COVID tests at Malpensa Airport in Milan for passengers arriving by direct flight from China. (Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (AGF via Getty Images)

Republican members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Monday released a 300-page report that concluded that the “preponderance of information affirms the plausibility of a research-related incident that was likely unintentional, resulting from failures of biosafety containment during vaccine-related research."

The report says that by 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had collected more than 20,000 viral samples from bats and other animals without comprehensive safety measures. “At least until the COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent that researchers at the WIV were working with SARS-related coronaviruses in inappropriate biosafety levels,” said the authors, who call themselves the Muddy Waters Group.

Among the more astonishing assertions in the Senate report is that Zhou Yusen, a scientist in charge of the military medicine branch of the People’s Liberation Army, may have begun working on a coronavirus vaccine as early as November 2019, shortly after several Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers came down with a respiratory illness — but well before Chinese authorities announced the potential presence of a new virus to the rest of the world.

A second House hearing

John Ratcliffe, David Feith and Mark Lowenthal raise their hands to swear in to a Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic investigation.

Tuesday saw John Ratcliffe, the former Republican House member who came to serve as director of National Intelligence during the Trump administration, testify before a House Oversight panel investigating how the virus began.

It was the second hearing from the committee. The first one had been tainted by charges that one of the witnesses, the former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, was a racist.

In his opening remarks, Ratcliffe — who was joined by two other witnesses — made his own views clear. “A lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense,” he said.

So far, the intelligence community has been deeply divided about how the coronavirus began. While the FBI and Department of Energy both hold that a lab leak is more likely, four other agencies that have looked into the matter are either undecided or cautiously in favor of a market origin.

Ratcliffe seemed to suggest that view could change. “I’m not in the intelligence community now, but, of course, have friends that are career individuals still serving in agencies,” he said in response to a lawmaker's question. “My understanding is that in most of the agencies, there is a shift. More and more analysts believe that a lab leak is the most plausible — if not the only plausible — assessment to make.”

Uncertainties remain

Shoppers and stall keepers protected by face masks stand in front of an array of cabbages and carrots in a vast covered market.
People wearing face masks buy vegetables at a wet market on Feb. 8, 2021, after a COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (Aly Song/Reuters) (Aly Song / reuters)

There is a pervasive sense, if not yet a consensus, that a definitive answer on how the pandemic emerged may never be found. “I can very well argue the lab leak, because China did not cooperate, they did not let folks get in there,” Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said. “I can also make a case for why initially, folks thought it jumped from an animal to a human.”

The point, he said, was to prepare as though both were true, and to shore up both biosecurity and viral emergence surveillance capabilities, as well as other facets of the nation's unruly and underfunded public health infrastructure.

“I think we have to take both theories seriously,” Bera said, adding that he nevertheless hoped that intelligence agencies would continue to push for the truth.

Worries about xenophobia

John Ratcliffe expostulates, while David Feith looks glum.
John Ratcliffe, left, at the microphone, with David Feith at his side, at the hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese Americans and others of Asian background have been subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse, a phenomenon that has risen markedly across the United States in the past three years.

Many blame former President Donald Trump, who liked to refer to “the China virus” and “kung flu” in the early days of the pandemic.

“In an effort to deflect from his administration’s botched pandemic response, President Trump looked for a scapegoat and a way to score points with his base,” Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, said at Tuesday’s hearing.

Anti-China sentiment has been rising in the United States, as economic competition and the future of the contested island of Taiwan have increased the tensions between the two nuclear superpowers. Some members of Congress have also been pushing to ban TikTok, a Chinese social media app used by millions of Americans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored in many ways that the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence is absolutely contrary to America’s interests and to America's values,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.

It was an assertion indicative of the prevailing mood in Washington.

The taint of conspiracy

A gray-haired man flanked by two gray-haired women watch the hearing, all wearing white T-shirts saying: Jail Fauci..
A group wearing "Jail Fauci" shirts watch the House Select Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Behind the witnesses sat several members of the public in T-shirts with a message demonstrating the passions the coronavirus continues to incite.

“Jail Fauci,” the shirts said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the career public servant and adviser to the White House on the pandemic, who has been a target of conservatives from almost the start of the pandemic. He retired at the end of 2022, but the aging immunologist continues to be the target of Republicans who say he misled the American public about the nature of the viral threat.

The most outlandish conspiracy theories hold that Fauci actively worked with Chinese peers to create a deadly pathogen.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has promoted coronavirus-related misinformation since entering Congress in 2021. A member of the House panel investigating the origins of the coronavirus, she mused on Tuesday that the Chinese government created the coronavirus to “sway, possibly” the 2020 presidential election, or that the virus was “some type of bioweapon.”

Neither assertion is backed by any credible evidence.