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Here’s a scenario for you:
You are the manager of a large hotel with hundreds of guests. One morning you enter the kitchen and discover that someone has eaten a big slice of the lavish wedding cake you had baked for a reception that day. What is the most likely explanation? One of your guests snuck down in the night and perpetrated the crime? One of your guests suffered from an undiagnosed case of somnambulism (sleepwalking) and unknowingly ate the cake? Or aliens from outer space came into the hotel, ate some cake, and departed without leaving a trace?
I think you’ll agree that the first scenario is the most likely one. Most of us will reject the aliens-from-space hypothesis out of hand, but we can’t as easily rule out the sleepwalking scenario. If a suspect can be found and convinced to confess, our work is over. But if not, and it’s truly critical to find the true answer (like, say, we’re not talking about a stolen piece of cake but rather a murder victim in the hotel’s walk-in refrigerator), you could investigate. Somnambulism is real, if rare, and people don’t always remember what they did while sleepwalking. Security cameras, card-key time stamps, fingerprints, DNA analysis — any of these could be pressed into service to find an answer. True, you might never figure out what exactly happened, but you’d be irresponsible not to check out all the possibilities.
I hope you won’t find the comparison flippant, but this is sort of what’s happening with efforts to further investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We’ve written about this before. In fact, in just our second article about the science related to the pandemic, way back in March 2020, we discussed whether we knew enough to be sure that pangolins were the intermediary between bats and humans (spoiler: we did not). More recently, when conspiracy theories suggesting that the virus had been deliberately engineered and released were circulating widely, we discussed the reasons that scientists roundly rejected that possibility.
But now pressure is rising to investigate the possibility that the virus accidentally escaped from a research laboratory, specifically a laboratory that was studying bat viruses in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic was first detected. (Do I need to point out that there is absolutely no excuse for harassing Chinese nationals, much less Asian Americans, because this virus originated in China?) Clearly it’s not only of academic interest to determine the origin of a coronavirus that continues to sicken and kill millions of people around the world. Understanding how animal viruses move from their natural reservoirs into humans is crucial for putting in place the monitoring and preventative measures that will make future pandemics less likely; if wild viruses being studied in laboratories can make this leap, as the accidental-escape theory suggests, we need to know about it.