A statement from the president of the United States. Calls for a congressional investigation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of articles around the globe. And a vigorously renewed conversation about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. All and more have resulted from the May 2021 letter in Science signed by 18 prominent scientists and spearheaded by David Relman, a professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Titled “Investigate the origins of COVID-19,” the letter states, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.” It criticizes the World Health Organization’s recent report on the origins of COVID-19 for not giving the two theories “balanced consideration.” This letter, however, was not Relman’s first statement on the subject; that was “To stop the next pandemic, we need to unravel the origins of COVID-19,” published in November 2020 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to less fanfare. Stanford spoke with Relman to understand the genesis of the Science letter, why it had such impact and what the next steps are in investigating the origins of COVID-19.
Stanford: Can you describe your thought process leading up to the letter in Science?
Relman: The first time I decided to speak out on this subject was last fall. I had watched the discourse during the prior 10 months of 2020 and became increasingly frustrated with the paucity of data on which people were basing statements about COVID’s origins and the certainty with which they were making them, so I wrote an opinion piece in PNAS. All I said was, “Listen, despite all this yakking, we actually don’t know a whole lot based on hard data. We have a lot of assumptions, but we have very little data, and when you step back, you have to agree that there still remain two different viable hypotheses.” That was in November, and I’m mentioning this because in some ways the content of the letter in Science was not new, but the letter was significant because of the co-authors, the venue and the timing. The WHO report motivated me and Jesse Bloom and Alina Chan to organize this thing. Our group was composed of working scientists with relevant expertise on COVID or SARS-CoV-2. We were 18 people who had largely avoided issuing statements with our opinions on COVID’s origins. And we wanted to publish the letter in a highly credible scientific journal that speaks directly to our colleagues.
So you wouldn’t be seen as having a political agenda because none of you had said there was a lab leak or a zoonotic transmission?
That’s right. Our goal was to identify a group of scientists who were credible subject-matter experts, people who understand how science is done, and scientists who had not violated the principles of scientific investigation by saying, “Despite the fact that we don’t have much of an evidentiary basis for saying any of this, we’re going to tell you how we think this all went down.” I also had a more specific purpose in selecting authors. Ralph Baric might be the most preeminent coronavirus expert in the world with respect to the development of the very techniques that others had alleged might have been used to create SARS-CoV-2, so I wanted him to be a co-author to a letter saying, “We really don’t know. Two different hypotheses, including a lab-associated one, are plausible.” So I wrote to Ralph and said, “I was thinking of a letter that’s going to say X, Y and Z. Would you sign such a letter?” And he said, “Yes. But, of course, I need to see it.” Then we nailed down a draft of the letter and showed it to Ralph and other people. We basically had a whole bunch of yeses and almost no noes. I ran into two maybes, and both of these people—really well-known scientists—said, “I’m very concerned not about what you’ve written here but that this letter will be seen as endorsing the lab-leak hypothesis and by doing so will feed anti-Asian racism.” We said that clearly we didn’t want to be doing that but that we can’t avoid some misrepresentation of our letter by those determined to do so. To deflect some of that, we incorporated a paragraph that called out the critical heroic early efforts by Chinese scientists and physicians to tell the world about what was happening despite threats to their own welfare. We applauded what they did and hoped that we in the West might take lessons from these Chinese heroes.
Do you think the letter ended up being perceived as endorsing the lab-leak hypothesis?
That’s hard to answer. There were some people who said that they believed the letter was feeding this dangerous narrative. On the other hand, I got a lot of emails from scientists who simply said, “Thank you for doing this.” I know there are people who are upset with me. One person called me up one evening and said, “You may not have intended it, but my friend so-and-so [a scientist who previously called the lab-leak hypothesis a conspiracy theory] is being sent death threats because of your rabble-rousing.” All I could say to him is, “I’m sorry if you think this is responsible. The problem in part is the current state of public and political discourse. But your friend also has some responsibility here.”
‘Is it a plausible hypothesis that somebody deliberately released this virus? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I don’t think it’s all that appropriate an issue to pursue right now. But an accident, for sure.’
What do you think about scientists who have said that SARS-CoV-2 couldn’t have been created in a lab because it is too different from known viruses?
I agree that it’s very hard to get from the publicly acknowledged closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 to SARS-CoV-2, but their assumption that because we haven’t heard of anything closer, there can’t be anything closer, is flawed. They continue to say that because we don’t see anything closer in a lab, it couldn’t have come from a lab. The problem is that you’re assuming that you know about everything that’s in the lab. I mean, all of us have unpublished data, so why would you assume that you know of everything that they could have had to work with? These scientists who claim that it couldn’t have come from a lab also fail to recognize the possibility of an accident during efforts to grow viruses directly from bat samples.
And what do you think about scientists who are arguing forcefully that there’s proof that the virus has been engineered from looking at the structure of the virus?
It’s the same illogic, which is to say we’ve never seen this before in nature; therefore, it had to have been created by humans. That, too, is flawed because our survey of nature is woefully incomplete. Every time somebody goes out and looks at another bat, they find some new viruses. Nature has created far more than we know.
How do you view claims that the virus was deliberately released?
I spent almost 12 years as the chair of a group at the National Academy of Medicine that studies emerging infections. What people forget is that, increasingly, humans are gaining powerful capabilities and, in fewer but some known cases, an interest in deliberately creating dangerous biological agents. In general, the role of humans in microbial disease emergence is more and more prominent and important. Can we point to hundreds of examples of deliberate misuse? No. And that’s why this issue has never had any real traction among most scientists. And yet everything about the capabilities, about the circumstances of the world, about the growing numbers of disgruntled and certainly irresponsible but also malevolent people in the world, that’s just sort of an irrefutable fact, and all you can say is, “Well, maybe.” Is it a plausible hypothesis that somebody deliberately released this virus? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I don’t think it’s all that appropriate an issue to pursue right now. But an accident, for sure. Especially an accident that was unbeknown at the time to the laboratory workers, involving self-infection during efforts to grow viruses.
‘I guess you could ask, “Suppose you are 40 or 45 and just getting started, would you be doing this?” And I’m not sure I would, much to my own chagrin. I have to hope that people will be fair.’
Has publishing the letter led to the outcome you were hoping to see?
I had no idea this was going to be such an impactful letter. But we were told that it became the most highly mentioned letter on social media that Science has ever published. There were thousands of tweets within a week involving almost every country on the planet. There were tweets in North Korea, of all places. The thing that happened that I cared about the most was that the progressives in the Democratic Party took notice and started to say, “OK, maybe there is something here.” Democratic policy makers had largely shunned any possibility of a lab-associated origin. On July 14, there was a hearing by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The topic was COVID’s origin and how we investigate pandemics. I was one of the witnesses. The three other witnesses spoke exclusively about natural zoonoses. About 95 percent of the questions ended up directed at me because everybody wanted to talk about the plausibility of the alternative hypothesis. The Democrats were as interested in this as were the Republicans. All of them actually agreed that this was something that has to be addressed.
Were you ever concerned that the letter would harm your career?
Yes, to a degree. I guess you could ask, “Suppose you are 40 or 45 and just getting started, would you be doing this?” And I’m not sure I would, much to my own chagrin. I have to hope that people will look at the case for what it is and think carefully about the basis on which any statement is made. I have to hope that people will be fair. Look at the letter. If you think that we are arguing in favor of a laboratory as the source, please tell me where you see that.
How do we begin investigating whether COVID began with a lab leak or a zoonotic transmission?
The United States, in my view, has to start by saying, “Look, we’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years. Here are some examples of lab accidents, and here’s where we weren’t so up-front about them. And here is some risky science that perhaps we now need to think through a bit more.” Maybe we show some humility and by so doing, facilitate participation by others, such as the People’s Republic of China. We might say, “We think it’s in everyone’s interest to get this sorted out, so we don’t each keep pointing fingers.” I do think there’s a way to start by inviting them to join us, and if they say, “Sorry, we’re not going to have anything to do with this,” I still think an investigation will be worthwhile. There’s a lot of potentially useful information in the world, especially from scientists and clinicians, that resides in all kinds of nooks and crannies, sometimes in plain sight.
Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.