There Is No Evidence Strong Enough to End the Pandemic-Origins Debate
The recent fight over wet-market raccoon dogs underscores just how much prior beliefs can affect interpretation.
By Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic
Three and a half years since the start of a pandemic that has killed millions of people and debilitated countless more, the world is still stuck at the start of the COVID-19 crisis in one maddening way: No one can say with any certainty how, exactly, the outbreak began. Many scientists think the new virus spilled over directly from a wild animal, perhaps at a Chinese wet market; some posit that the pathogen leaked accidentally from a local laboratory in Wuhan, China, the pandemic’s likely epicenter. All of them lack the slam-dunk evidence to prove one hypothesis and rule out the rest.
That’s not to say nothing has changed. Those embroiled in the origins fracas now have much more data to scrutinize, debate, and re-debate. In March, I reported that the case for a zoonotic origin had acquired a consequential new piece of support: An international team of scientists had uncovered genetic data, collected from a wet market in Wuhan in the weeks after the venue was closed on January 1, 2020, that linked the coronavirus to wild animals. This evidence, they said, indicated that one of those creatures could have been shedding SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; one of the most intriguing bits of data pointed to raccoon dogs, a foxlike creature that was already known to be vulnerable to the virus. The finding wasn’t direct evidence of an animal infection, but, stacked alongside other clues, “this really strengthens the case for a natural origin,” Seema Lakdawala, a virologist at Emory University who wasn’t involved in the research, told me at the time…