A group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China is pushing back against a steady stream of stories and even a scientific paper suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China, may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins,” the scientists, from nine countries, write in a statement published online by The Lancet yesterday.
The letter does not criticize any specific assertions about the origin of the outbreak, but many posts on social media have singled out the Wuhan Institute of Virology for intense scrutiny because it has a laboratory at the highest security level—biosafety level 4—and its researchers study coronaviruses from bats, including the one that is closest to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Speculations have included the possibility that the virus was bioengineered in the lab or that a lab worker was infected while handling a bat and then transmitted the disease to others outside the lab. Researchers from the institute have insisted there is no link between the outbreak and their laboratory.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” says The Lancet statement, which praises the work of Chinese health professionals as “remarkable” and encourages others to sign on as well.
U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R–AR) added fuel to controversial assertions on Fox News earlier this month when he noted that the lab was “a few miles away” from a seafood market that had a large cluster of some of the first cases detected. “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” Cotton said, noting that the Chinese government initially turned down the U.S. government’s offer to send scientists to the country to help clarify questions about the outbreak.
The authors of The Lancet statement note that scientists from several countries who have studied SARS-CoV-2 “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” just like many other viruses that have recently emerged in humans. “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” the statement says.
Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance and a cosignatory of the statement, has collaborated with researchers at the Wuhan institute who study bat coronaviruses. “We’re in the midst of the social media misinformation age, and these rumors and conspiracy theories have real consequences, including threats of violence that have occurred to our colleagues in China,” Daszak, a disease ecologist, told ScienceInsider. “We have a choice whether to stand up and support colleagues who are being attacked and threatened daily by conspiracy theorists or to just turn a blind eye. I’m really proud that people from nine countries are able to rapidly come to their defense and show solidarity with people who are, after all, dealing with horrific conditions in an outbreak.”