New report takes sides in debate over COVID-19’s origins

BY JON COHEN

The acrimonious debate over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic flared up again this 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.”

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