The Lancet medical journal has published an article calling for an “objective” and “transparent” debate about the true origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, more than a year and a half after its controversial article condemning “conspiracy theories” that suggest the virus leaked from a laboratory in China.
The article published Friday, titled, “An appeal for an objective, open and transparent scientific debate about the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” is signed by 16 scientists arguing that a laboratory-related accident is “plausible,” as is the virus having a natural origin, and that neither theory should be ruled out yet.
“Overwhelming evidence for either a zoonotic or research-related origin is lacking: the jury is still out,” they wrote. “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).”
The authors criticized a controversial “statement in support of the scientists” article published by The Lancet in February of 2020 that declared, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” That letter, signed by 27 experts, warned that the sharing of data on the COVID-19 outbreak was being “threatened by rumors and misinformation” surrounding its origins.
The February 2020 letter faced scrutiny after one of the authors, Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and member of The Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission, did not disclose competing interests and was later “recused” from working on the origins of the pandemic. Daszak has since updated his disclosure statement to include information regarding EcoHealth’s work in China.
In July, the same group of experts in the 2020 letter published another letter reaffirming their belief that COVID-19 evolved in nature while urging others to “turn down the heat of the rhetoric and turn up the light of scientific inquiry.”
The authors of Friday’s letter argued that the other group’s statements have had a “silencing effect on the wider scientific debate, including among science journalists.”
“Scientific journals should open their columns to in-depth analyses of all hypotheses,” they argued. “As scientists, we need to evaluate all hypotheses on a rational basis, and to weigh their likelihood based on facts and evidence, devoid of speculation concerning possible political impacts.”
“More importantly, science embraces alternative hypotheses, contradictory arguments, verification, refutability, and controversy,” they continued. “Departing from this principle risks establishing dogmas, abandoning the essence of science, and, even worse, paving the way for conspiracy theories. Instead, the scientific community should bring this debate to a place where it belongs: the columns of scientific journals.”
A World Health Organization-led investigation into the virus received much scrutiny over its inconclusive results in March, and China has rejected a second phase of an investigation into its origin. The scientists in Friday’s article said that while the initial study concluded the laboratory origin was “extremely unlikely,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that all hypotheses remained on the table.
The authors then called for an “evidence-based, independent and prejudice-free evaluation” into the virus’ origins, which they said would require “an international consultation of high-level experts with no conflicts of interest, from various disciplines and countries.”
Alexandria Hein contributed reporting.