Lingering questions about the virus’ origins have sparked debates among scientists and lawmakers, while also fueling concerns about risky biological research. Texas A&M biosecurity expert Dr. Gerald Parker explains.
The national discussion about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to evolve in recent weeks, with the FBI and U.S. Department of Energy both determining that the SARS-CoV-2 virus most likely originated from a Chinese lab leak.
Meanwhile, other agencies continue to assert the virus originated in nature and some do not know, as the U.S. House of Representatives kicks off a series of hearings to assess the competing explanations. Concerns about a possible lab leak have also heightened public concern about potentially risky pathogen research carried out in both international and U.S. laboratories.
Texas A&M Today spoke about these developments with biosecurity expert Dr. Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health and director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at the Bush School’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.
Parker serves as chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which recently issued a series of oversight recommendations aimed at balancing the risks and benefits of this crucial category of research. The NSABB’s report, “Proposed Biosecurity Oversight Framework for the Future of Science,” was endorsed by the American Society for Microbiology and has since been submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What do you make of the FBI and Department of Energy’s assessments that COVID-19 most likely emerged from a lab leak?
I think those assessments are significant. Most people don’t realize the FBI is a member of the intelligence community, nor the Department of Energy, but they have important intelligence components.
The DOE is at a low confidence level, and the FBI is at a moderate confidence level — that moderate confidence is actually very significant. But what’s most important about those agencies, and particularly the DOE, is the national labs that are a part of the DOE enterprise. They’re known for weapons research, of course, but their life science research is also very powerful. I don’t know what prompted the change in DOE’s findings, but I think it’s significant because of the scientific expertise they have at their disposal.
As an example, after the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, in the subsequent Amerithrax investigation, it was the FBI’s expertise coupled with the scientific expertise coming out of the national labs that were key components in cracking the case.
Why has it been so difficult to trace where this particular virus came from?
First and foremost, I have a lot of empathy for the Chinese people and the Chinese scientists. We in the U.S. have had a lot of collaborations with Chinese scientists over the years, and international scientific collaboration is essential as we think into the future.
But unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party has silenced Chinese scientist and the party is not a friend of ours. From the very start, the Chinese Communist Party has engaged in an active campaign of deflection, denial and obstruction. And that has really hindered our ability to determine what happened and probably hindered our ability to rapidly respond as well.
And so, here we are three years later. We don’t know how SARS-CoV-2 emerged to cause the worst pandemic in over 100 years, and that’s too bad.
What evidence exists to support the two competing hypotheses?
There is no definitive evidence. We don’t have, from either natural or laboratory settings, the progenitor or parents of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine which one of those it could be.
Maybe the best evidence we have for a natural origin is that’s historically the way most disease outbreaks, epidemics or a pandemic happens, through zoonotic spillover events (animal-to-human transmission). However, for SARS-CoV-2, an intermediate animal has not been found and horseshoe bats known to harbor SARS-related coronaviruses are found over a thousand miles away in southern China and southeast Asia. Absence of evidence is not evidence, necessarily, but after three years, it’s significant that we haven’t been able to find evidence in animals or animal trade.
On the research-associated side, we know that laboratories in Wuhan were doing risky research. They were generating novel chimeric viruses not found in nature, meaning they were taking backbones of SARS-related viruses and putting in spike proteins from other viruses to gauge infectivity and try to predict pandemic potential — all seemingly worthy goals, but we also know that some of those experiments were done in inappropriately low biosafety levels, which means it was unnecessarily dangerous. That’s all we know.
A bill was recently passed unanimously in the Senate and the House trying to force the intelligence community to declassify the information they have. The President hasn’t signed it yet, but I’m sure he will. It’s important, I think, for all of us to see what they made their determinations on.
The possibility that COVID emerged from a lab leak has sparked renewed public interest and concern regarding risky research. How has the NSABB been working to address these concerns and prevent future pandemics of this kind?
In 2022, NIH gave the NSABB a charge to reexamine the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight Framework (P3CO) and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) policies, and that’s what the recent NSABB report made recommendations on.
One of the major recommendations is to expand the scope of what might constitute an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen, incorporating pathogens that are highly transmissible but may only have moderate virulence or lethality, like SARS-CoV-2.
With this pandemic, you had a very highly transmissible virus and it had a relatively low infection-fatality rate. But nonetheless, that modest virulence with high transmissibility had a major impact on society, and a major impact on our healthcare systems. We don’t want to be creating a virus like SARS-CoV-2, that if accidentally escapes the lab, could have huge impacts on our healthcare system, economy and society.
We need to work with dangerous pathogens, but the small subset of research that could generate an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen requires a comprehensive risk-benefit analysis, risk mitigation plan and a demonstrated benefit to society. There must be strong oversight.
High containment laboratories where research that might generate enhanced potential pandemic pathogens are the foundation of our preparedness and response enterprise. These labs are essential. But we must demonstrate that there’s benefit if we ever engage in research that could generate a potential pandemic pathogen, and that risks can be mitigated. We need to be very careful about that and the public needs to have a voice in these decisions. Bottom line, we need to make sure that we can continue to innovate without stifling necessary research, and where we need additional governance and oversight, we had better put it in place.
Why is it important to keep searching for the origins of COVID-19, and where should our government go from here?
Whenever the next virus emerges, you have to know the origin so you can mitigate future spread and prevent ongoing case transmission, so I think it’s essential that we understand where SARS-CoV-2 came from, and I think we have a moral obligation to all those who died and those who lost loved ones.
What’s most important now is that our congress and administration come together to establish a 9/11-style commission to investigate to the best of our ability, though even that may not give us definitive evidence — and it’s got to be apolitical. I testified on Feb. 1 to the House Oversight Investigation Committee and I made some strong statements that we must stop politicizing this. The American people and the international community need some answers and we can’t get there if we keep politicizing this.
By Luke Henkhaus, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications
Note: This article originally appeared in Texas A&M Today on March 16, 2023