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Origins of COVID-19 once again spark debate

The acrimonious debate over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic flared up again last week with a report from an expert panel concluding that SARS-CoV-2 likely spread naturally in a zoonotic jump from an animal to humans—without help from a lab.

“Our paper recognizes that there are different possible origins, but the evidence towards zoonosis is overwhelming,” says co-author Danielle Anderson, a virologist at the University of Melbourne. The report, which includes an analysis that found the peer-reviewed literature overwhelmingly supports the zoonotic hypotheses, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on 10 October.

The panel’s own history reflects the intensity of the debate. Originally convened as a task force of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a wide-reaching effort to derive lessons from the pandemic, it was disbanded by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the commission’s chair. Sachs alleged that several members had conflicts of interest that would bias them against the lab-origin hypothesis.

Sachs and other researchers who contend the scientific community has too blithely dismissed the lab-leak possibility aren’t persuaded by the new analysis. The task force’s literature analysis was a good idea, says Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has pushed for more investigations of the lab-leak hypothesis. But he says the zoonosis proponents haven’t provided much new data. “What we’ve seen is mostly reanalysis and reinterpretation of existing evidence.”

Sachs adds that the task force report does not “systematically address” the possible research-related origins of the pandemic. And he contends there was a “rush to judgment” by the National Institutes of Health and “a small group of virologists” to dismiss the possible research-related origins of the pandemic. In September, The Lancet published a report from his commission that gave equal weight to both hypotheses.

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