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Reactions: FBI director says "the covid-19 pandemic probably originated in a laboratory incident in China"

In an interview with US television FOX News, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that, according to his office's assessment, "it is likely that the origin of the coronavirus pandemic was a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China". These statements follow media reports of a US Department of Energy report, accessed by the Wall Street Journal, that would also support "with low confidence" the leak hypothesis. Even so, a spokesman for the US National Security Council told AP that there is "no consensus" among intelligence agencies on the issue.

01/03/2023 - 15:44 CET
China lab

Image taken on 21 May 2019 showing a man as he works in a research laboratory in Lianyungang, China. EFE/ Aleksandar Plavevski.

Expert reactions

Jonathan Stoye - FBI coronavirus EN

Jonathan Stoye

Senior Group Leader and Head of the Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute

Science Media Centre UK

As far as I can make out, no new evidence has been released to support the FBI statement.  In the absence of any such information I am not inclined to change my view that the available evidence supports a natural origin for the COVID pandemic.

Finger-pointing without providing evidence has been very unhelpful, greatly complicating international efforts to provide a definitive description of the events leading to the first human infections.

The author has declared they have no conflicts of interest

Stephen Goldstein - FBI coronavirus EN

Stephen Goldstein

Coronavirus virologist at the University of Utah (USA)

Science Media Centre Spain

As has been true for the last three years, there is no scientific or epidemiological evidence linking the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 to any laboratory. Instead, we are now experiencing a ferocious government information campaign with chilling parallels to the deliberate deceit in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and laundered through some of the same journalists. I hope the consequences of this effort will be less catastrophic for the world than its predecessor in the early years of this century.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Ignacio González Bravo - FBI coronavirus

Ignacio González Bravo

Research director at the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases and Vectors: Ecology, Genetics, Evolution and Control (MIVEGEC) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Science Media Centre Spain

It is not new for the FBI to defend the laboratory origin hypothesis for SARS-CoV-2. It is new for DOE to do so. As a scientist, I believe that this communication is fundamentally unscientific, in that it contains neither new data nor new information to support the new interpretation. It is more parsimonious to interpret it as part of a communication war strategy between the US and China, rather than as part of an effort to understand the origin of the virus.

Both alternatives are possible: i) natural origin and jumping species(es), and ii) targeted modification in a laboratory and loss of containment. The question is to elucidate how likely each is.

With respect to the first, viral diversity in nature and epidemiological patterns at the onset of the epidemic suggest natural origin. As a criticism of this interpretation, these closely related viruses have not been detected near Wuhan, but in Laos, and the occurrence of cases in the Wuhan market does not necessarily exclude a possible escape from the laboratory.

Regarding the second interpretation, certain functionalities in SARS-CoV-2, which differentiate it from other viruses very similar to it, suggest a discontinuity in its evolutionary history. Criticising this interpretation, the origin of the omicron lineage implies the accumulation of more than twenty mutations with respect to its ancestor, over a long period of time during which variants of this lineage were never detected, and there was no need to invoke directed evolution in the laboratory to justify its emergence. The explanation offered is the circulation of viruses of this lineage among immunosuppressed populations, which allowed the accumulation of intermediate mutants that would not have thrived in other human populations.

The author has declared they have no conflicts of interest
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