The US Department of Energy recently assessed that the COVID-19 pandemic was likely caused by scientists doing research on viruses. This assessment is not proof of the “lab leak” theory: it was made at “low confidence”, and different US government agencies have made different assessments about the likely origins of COVID-19. The scientific community also remains divided on this matter, with disagreements about whether specific features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, or the specific dynamics of the outbreak in Wuhan, favor the lab leak theory versus a natural spillover from animals into humans. But these disagreements have often distracted from a much more urgent question:
Why are scientists doing research that has the potential to cause pandemics?
From their publications in prestigious scientific journals and grant applications to US funding agencies, we know that researchers in Wuhan were studying viruses that could potentially cause a pandemic disease similar to COVID-19 if accidentally released into the human population. The researchers traveled to remote locations to collect hazardous biological samples, brought these samples back to Wuhan (a major population center), isolated novel coronaviruses from these samples, and manipulated the genomes of the novel coronaviruses they found in an attempt to make these viruses more dangerous to humans.
Astonishingly, this was not rogue research. The researchers in Wuhan are highly respected virologists. The research they were doing was part of an international collaboration that was (and is still) funded by the US National Institutes of Health and other major science funding agencies. Similar research continues to be pursued, both in the US and abroad, on other deadly viruses, and this research continues to be supported with US taxpayer dollars. And despite the very real possibility that COVID-19 came out of a lab, influential virologists still argue that this type of research should not only continue—it should be expanded.
Biosafety Now was founded by scientists, biosafety experts, community advocates, and members of the public who believe that this madness has to stop. Two decades of inaction by the scientific community and scientific funding agencies have demonstrated that scientists alone cannot be trusted to police themselves on matters that present such obvious risks to every human on the planet. Rather, policy makers and members of the public need to take active measures to protect the world from the excesses of scientific curiosity, ambition, and hubris.
Biosafety Now is a non-partisan organization created to catalyze this change by empowering the public. We urge you to join our efforts. Please sign up for our newsletter so we can update you on our efforts and inform you of important developments. If you live in the US, please contact your elected representative, e.g., by customizing one of our template letters urging the adoption of new biosafety regulations or a comprehensive investigation into the origin of COVID-19. Please also consider making a tax-deductible donation to Biosafety Now [a 503(c)(3) nonprofit registered in New Jersey], so that we can grow this movement. And finally, don’t hesitate to contact us at [email protected]; we would love to hear from you.
Justin B. Kinney, is an Associate Professor in the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University in 2008, is a co-author on >40 journal articles, and serves as project leader on two National Institutes of Health research grants. His lab has developed widely-used research methods, including methods that are now used to understand the effects of mutations present in variants of SARS-CoV-2.