You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why We’re Obsessed Once Again With Covid-19’s Origin Story

The return of the lab-leak thesis reveals that we’re grappling for closure amid a pandemic that is still raging.

A researcher in protective gear looks up in a cave.
Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
A team of ecologists and ecology students collect bats at the Khao Chong Pran cave for coronavirus research in Ratchaburi, Thailand.

Just like that, we’re back to arguing about the coronavirus’s origins. Last week, Newsweek explored the idea that a group of virus-hunting researchers went out looking for coronaviruses in China (to monitor and study), found one, and unwittingly spread it to the rest of the world. In a clip released Friday from a longer interview aired later in the weekend, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN he believes the coronavirus could not have developed rapid human-to-human transmission that quickly in nature and therefore must have escaped from a research facility. Researchers interviewed by Undark magazine in a long piece published earlier this month also thought the lab-leak theory deserved a second look. On Monday, the AP reported that the World Health Organization and Chinese health officials’ joint study, not yet formally released, will dismiss lab-leak theories and again affirm that animal-mediated transmission (for example: bats to humans) is the most likely culprit. In a 60 Minutes segment on Sunday, two opposing experts admitted that while each side—lab leak versus zoonotic transmission—had good reasons to believe its respective theory, everyone lacked direct, irrefutable evidence for how SARS-CoV-2 originated.

It’s natural for both the public and researchers to wonder how the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 came to be. Plotting the source and trajectory of any disaster—be it a pandemic, train derailment, rocket explosion, reactor meltdown, or terror attack—is fundamental to preventing its repetition. “If we fail to fully and courageously examine the origins of this pandemic, we risk being unprepared for a potentially worse pandemic in the future,” an international group of scientists wrote this month. But the return to fixating on the virus’s origin story, as many did early in the pandemic, also feels like a distinct stage in Covid grief—an attempt to finally cope with the collective trauma of the past year and, hopefully, put it to bed.

“People have a hard time tolerating uncertainty, and that’s all we’ve had for over a year now,” said Dr. Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist who focuses on mental resilience. “We like to understand things. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is soothing.”

A year ago, she pointed out, we were all panic-buying disinfectant wipes and anxiously tallying the number of times we touched our faces hourly. When scientists clarified that the coronavirus wasn’t spreading on surfaces, we could slightly expand the circumference of our shrunken safety bubbles. Similarly, she said, recent progress has given us more space to regain comfort and confidence. Looking to the future, knowing the origins of this pandemic provides a mental prophylactic against the looming uncertainty of the unavoidable next one. 

In the United States, almost half of people 65 and over (who are especially susceptible to dying of Covid-19) are fully vaccinated. Overall, more than one in three adults has received at least one vaccine dose. The daily death toll has also dropped to a third of its staggering wintertime peak, when thousands were dying of Covid-19 daily. With every passing day, normalcy feels closer than it has in the past 12 months.

The current debate over SARS-CoV-2’s emergence can seem like a logical final chapter—returning to the beginning to make sense of the end. But the structural vulnerabilities that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to infect at least 127 million people worldwide and claim almost three million lives remain the same, regardless of where the coronavirus originated and how it initially spread. We have known for years that resource extraction and human expansion into wildlife habitats could lead to emergent zoonotic diseases. We have known that inadequate health coverage and sick leave policies could spread illness; countless reports and studies in recent years have chronicled the draining of public health resources, the erosion of science and public trust in it (anti-masking falls into this category), and the failures of the U.S. health care system to equitably provide affordable medical care to all.

“It’s natural to want to know the origin of an outbreak, especially a pandemic, so I don’t think that particular interest is uncommon or unexpected,” said University of Arizona epidemiologist Saskia Popescu in an email. But plotting the course of a virus in reverse is time-consuming with an unclear payoff: Notably, several decades of research has still not yielded an answer to the question of which bat species serves as Ebola’s natural reservoir. Even if, in 2020, we have the technical capability to sequence the virus hundreds of thousands of times over, without more access to the much-debated labs in China, some experts say we may never answer lingering questions about Covid-19’s beginnings. Outsize attention to various origin theories, Popescu said, “frankly distracts from the realities that we were entirely ill-prepared for a pandemic and that we continue to struggle with basic public health interventions.”

Origin story fixation can also lead to a false sense of security—a belief that we are far enough from danger to make a complete assessment of it. Last week, for example, CNN packaged a slate of interviews by Dr. Sanjay Gupta with six of the country’s leading health officials as an “autopsy” of the pandemic. But the pandemic is not even on its deathbed yet. Several countries in Europe have reinstated lockdowns to try and control rising case numbers. In the U.S., more transmissible versions of the virus continue to spread across the country. Vaccine hoarding by richer countries could allow the virus to circulate unchecked in poorer countries, which could lead to the development of new variants that existing vaccines are worse at protecting against. And even America’s daily death count from Covid-19 is still hovering around an unacceptably high toll of 1,000 lives lost each day.

On Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky became emotional during a White House Covid-19 briefing, ditching her prepared remarks and telling the public that a recent uptick in cases and hospitalizations has left her with a sense of “impending doom.” “I so badly want to be done,” she said. “I know you all so badly want to be done.  We are just almost there but not quite yet.”

Why are we so eager to conduct an autopsy on a body that’s still blinking and wiggling its fingers, threatening to sit back up? And what makes us think that knowing how that body was born will tell us something useful?

Early on, pinpointing the source of an outbreak can guide the immediate efforts to contain it, Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told me. If you identify the site where a pathogen originated and multiplied (whether that’s a wet market or a research facility), you can close it down, contact trace and extensively test and quarantine any potential human vectors, she said. For Covid-19, that time has come and gone, of course. Instead, uncertainty about SARS-CoV-2—where it came from, what it does to the human body, and how to combat it—has plagued us from the beginning.

Some fact-finding, clearly, is warranted. “In the wake of the Covid-19 disaster—the greatest disaster the world has faced since since World War II—an investigation of the causes of the disaster and policy changes to reduce the risk and impact of similar future disasters are urgently needed,” said Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright over email. “However, no such investigation has occurred.”

A productive investigation doesn’t need to resolve the lab-versus-nature debate. Even in the absence of a conclusive Covid-19 origin story, it is still possible to prepare better for the next pandemic.

Failures of public health messaging, systemic inequity in access to medicine, and overall lack of pandemic preparedness—from equipment distribution to testing infrastructure to contact tracing—are all human-made and potentially human-solvable issues, regardless of whether we ultimately pin the origins of SARS-CoV-2 on a bat, pig, pangolin, or unwitting virus hunter. “This research is important,” Popescu said, “but it shouldn’t be seen as a scapegoat for failure to respond to infectious diseases at a national level.”