(p. A6) On the heels of President Biden’s abrupt order to U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, many scientists reacted positively, reflecting their push in recent weeks for more information about the work of a virus lab in Wuhan, China. But they cautioned against expecting an answer in the three-month time frame of the president’s request.
After long steering clear of the debate, some influential scientists have lately become more open to expressing uncertainties about the origins of the virus. If the two most vocal poles of the argument are natural spillover vs. laboratory leak, these new voices have added a third point of view: a resounding undecided.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure against speaking up, because it was tied to conspiracies and Trump supporters,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. “There was very little rational discussion going on in the beginning.”
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While researchers generally welcome a sustained search for answers, some warn that those answers may not arrive any time soon — if ever.
“At the end of this process, I would not be surprised if we did not know much more than we know now,” said W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University who was one of the first U.S. scientists to visit China in early 2020 and consult with public health authorities there.
China’s lack of cooperation with the W.H.O. has long fueled suspicions about how the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, had emerged seemingly from nowhere to seize the world.
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Speaking recently to the former New York Times journalist Donald McNeil Jr., Dr. Lipkin said he was dismayed to learn of two coronavirus studies from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that had been carried out with only a modest level of safety measures, known as BSL-2.
In an interview with The Times, Dr. Lipkin said this fact wasn’t proof in itself that SARS-CoV-2 spread from the lab. “But it certainly does raise the possibility that must be considered,” he said.
A BSL-2 level of research would also add to the difficulty researchers will face trying to pin down clear evidence that a coronavirus infected the staff. At higher levels of security, staff regularly give blood samples that can be studied later for genetic material from viruses and antibodies against them. There may be no such record for SARS-CoV-2.
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 27, 2021, and has the title “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence.”)