An artist’s impression of the new coronavirus. Photo: dianakuehn30010/pixabay.
The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains mired in controversy. The virus was initially thought to have originated in a wet market in China’s Wuhan. But as it spread around the world, it fuelled many conspiracy theories in its wake. In the public imagination, the virus has often transformed (baselessly) into a bioweapon, a scientific experiment leaked from a laboratory and spread through the 5G network. Scientists have downplayed these ideas, quoting genomic analyses that clearly show the virus is of natural origin and jumped from some animal species to humans.
Yet its origin remains unsettled and this ambiguity needs to be resolved soon – not to settle political agendas or conspiracy theories but simply and importantly in the larger interest of public health. Settling the question of the virus’s origins once and for all is key to take appropriate measures to prevent it from happening again, and to focus our efforts on the right things.
This said, who can comprehensively investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2?
On May 19, the World Health Assembly, the decision making body of the WHO, passed a resolution seeking a probe into the zoonotic origins of the virus. But will WHO investigate its possible unnatural origins? The health agency has already said there is no evidence to support such a claim and aggressive investigation of wrongdoing will make understanding its origin more difficult. China has also insisted that the probe happen after the pandemic is contained and be led by the WHO team. Previous pandemic investigations have been led by independent teams – this is critical in the backdrop of allegations of WHO being influenced by China.
Tracing the origin of the virus would reinforce the idea that the virus is of natural origin and further mapping could unravel the circumstances of its jump to humans. Identifying the trail of zoonotic viruses has underpinned public health responses to them. For example, when Nipah virus cases were linked to bats contaminating date palm sap in Bangladesh, the government advised people to abstain from drinking raw sap. Similarly, we can design guidelines to prevent a recurrence of a COVID-19 like pandemic once we know how it jumped to humans.
But what happens if the WHO team cannot conclusively demonstrate a zoonotic source? This is a likely outcome given the long duration that has elapsed since the origin of outbreak. The lack of a definitive answer may rejuvenate the other ‘origin theories’.
One such theory is that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon. The WHO is not mandated to investigate this matter. If SARS-CoV-2 has been alleged to be a bioweapon, it will be up to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to launch an investigation. The BWC came into force in 1975 and prevents the use, development and stockpiling of biological weapons, except for peaceful purposes. But the mechanism to start an investigation through BWC is fraught with political and diplomatic liabilities. The BWC cannot suo moto begin an examination. Its members states must request one.
However, there is a tremendous reputation cost for raising such a complaint in the absence of proof. If the subsequent investigation finds there is no foul play, the political and diplomatic fallout for the complainant will be massive. Thus, no country will actually use this mechanism unless there is substantial proof of a deliberate attack. Gathering such proof for a biological outbreak is much more difficult than for other weapons. Since a virus can come from almost anywhere, there may be no one definite characteristic of the outbreak that can determine if it was deliberate or natural.
Another theory is that the virus was some sort of scientific experiment that leaked from a laboratory. In such a case, the outbreak cannot be considered natural outbreak or deliberate, but an act of negligence. This grey zone possibility will likely fall in the ambit of the BWC-mediated investigation, not WHO. But the same caveats as bioweapons apply here: without any proof, would any country risk the cost of starting an investigation against China?
If a country does come forward, the BWC will refer the case to the UN Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC will then pass a resolution and form an investigative team. But for COVID-19, this is unlikely to happen unless China agrees. China is one of the P5 states at the UNSC and has the power to veto such an outcome. The other mechanism BWC can opt for is to request the UN Secretary General to head a mission probing the origin of the virus. Such a mission would co-opt scientific experts from the UN member states and is likely to be best suited for such as study. However, even this mission needs to be endorsed by the UNSC, which remains unlikely.
This entire scenario exposes fundamental flaws in the global approach to biosecurity threats. There is no single global scientific board which can assess a pathogen’s evolution. Currently, scientists scattered across the world have studied the viruses, and in the absence of a global authority, this allows some people to create and disseminate ‘alternative information’ as they find suitable. Second, there does not seem to be credibility assigned to scientific studies, and political interests have overshadowed scientific claims. Third, if there was ever a bioweapons attack, the chances of it being thoroughly investigated depends more on political whims than biosecurity impact.
These concerns can be tackled by setting up a scientific advisory board that can assess novel pathogens, investigate their source and coordinate actions between WHO and the BWC, independent of any one country’s influence. Public health transcends political interest; in the midst of a global pandemic, we do need to settle how this all started so that we can prevent this in the future.
Shambhavi Naik is a research fellow at the Takshashila Institution. She has a PhD in cancer biology from the University of Leicester.