The Lancet has published a call for a debate about the proper origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, more than a year after it sparked controversy by criticizing those who suggest the virus came from a lab. When the media publishes material that is causing genuine harm to the public, scientists must do all they can to correct the record. In this context, The Lancet’s call for an open and honest debate about the origins of a lethal virus strikes a positive note for most people.
“Overwhelming evidence for either a zoonotic or research-related origin is lacking: the jury is still out,” begin the authors. On the basis of the current scientific literature, complemented by our own analyses of coronavirus genomes and proteins, we hold that there is currently no compelling evidence to choose between a natural origin (ie, a virus that has evolved and been transmitted to humans solely via contact with wild or farmed animals) and a research-related origin (which might have occurred at sampling sites, during transportation or within the laboratory, and might have involved natural, selected or engineered viruses),” reads the article.
The authors argue that scientists should reject politically motivated speculation and assess hypotheses on the basis of the evidence. In science, adhering to a standard model means accepting its strengths and weaknesses. In the long run, this is the best way to make progress. The scientific community should respect scientists who question the current model and accept their alternative hypotheses as long as they are based on evidence, not speculation.
There has been much controversy surrounding the origin of the virus. Phase one of the WHO-led investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclusively determine its laboratory origin. However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted on further investigation.