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Global experts back Covid-19 natural origins theory

Opinion polls have never resolved scientific disputes, but recently, a group of risk experts found a new angle on a hotly debated issue – the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus behind the Covid-19 pandemic – by conducting the first systematic survey of scientific opinion on the matter.

According to the report, posted online, virologists and other scientists seem to favour the view that the pandemic began when a natural virus jumped from an animal to a human, and not because of an accident in a research lab that was studying or manipulating coronaviruses.

The survey triggered a fierce debate on social media, where the report was both praised as “an important global survey” and panned as a “fake study”.

Key things to know about the survey

The idea came from John Halstead, a political philosopher and filmmaker based in Oxford, England, who’s making a documentary about Covid-19’s origin. “There were lots of claims and counterclaims about what most experts think about this, but no hard data to back it up,” Halstead told the journal Science.

To carry out the survey, he turned to the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute (GCRI), a non-partisan US-based think tank that studies “events that could significantly harm or even destroy human civilisation” on a global scale.

GCRI staff helped devise the questions and enlisted Nemesys Insights, a New York company, to produce the survey and email it to scientists who, based on a predetermined protocol, were deemed to have expertise in the matter. The goal was to poll a much larger and more geographically diverse group than the few scientists usually seen discussing the issue in the media.

The respondents

Of the 1 138 experts invited to participate, 168 provided usable data – a low response rate, but that’s not uncommon in this type of survey. Among them were epidemiologists (44%), virologists (46%), and a couple of biosafety experts and evolutionary geneticists, from 47 countries.

Excluded were scientists in 60 countries and territories, including China, listed as “not free” by the pro-democracy organisation Freedom House.

Although the survey was anonymous, the team was worried that researchers there might feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions, or that doing so might put them in legal or physical danger.

What did the survey find?

Respondents were asked to put a probability on each of three scenarios: that the pandemic resulted from a natural zoonosis; that a biomedical research-related accident was to blame; or that there was another cause. (The three probabilities had to add up to 100%.)

On average, respondents assigned a 77% probability to a zoonosis, 21% to the lab-leak scenario, and 2% to the “other” category.

One-quarter of respondents seemed to be very sure about a zoonotic origin, giving it a probability between 96% and 100%.

That hardly means respondents believe the matter is settled, however. One in five researchers gave a probability of 50% or more to a scenario other than a natural zoonosis.

Did virologists favour a zoonotic scenario?

That’s what you might expect; after all, if a lab accident killed millions, it would be a stain on virology that could lead to new restrictions on research.

But the study found no statistically significant differences in the views of virologists and epidemiologists. (Nor were there significant differences between respondents from developing and developed countries.)

There were other differences between the two groups, however. For example, asked to rate the probability that the next pandemic will be caused by a lab accident, virologists on average said it was 8%, and epidemiologists 21%.

Any caveats?

The survey itself casts some doubts on the experts’ expertise. It asked whether they were familiar with a series of hotly debated documents pertaining to the coronavirus’ origin, including the report of a World Health Organisation mission to China, papers in Nature and Science, and a 2021 US Department of State fact sheet.

Also on that list was “Hanlen et al (2022),” a fictional paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included to check whether the respondents were being truthful and paying attention. One in three respondents said they were familiar with the non-existent paper.

By contrast, only 22% of respondents said they were familiar with a research proposal known as DEFUSE, which was submitted to the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2018 by the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance and partnering labs in the United States and at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The latter is the Chinese facility where some believe SARS-CoV-2 originated, and many lab-leak proponents see DEFUSE –which DARPA rejected – as an example of risky virology and evidence that there was a “blueprint” for creating the virus.

“At least 78% of experts are very badly informed (not aware of one key document),” Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist and member of a group called DRASTIC that defends the lab-origin hypothesis, tweeted in a comment on the study. “And 33% of experts are either lying or easily confused. Basically, these experts are no better than the Delphic Pythia, hallucinations included.”

“I agree that the responses … are curious, especially on the fake study, though we also note it is possible for someone to have significant expertise on a topic without necessarily being familiar with every study on that topic,” says GCRI co-founder and executive director Seth Baum, who, with Halstead, is an author on the survey report.

“But, regardless, we did not find any significant correlation between the responses on familiarity with prior studies and responses to questions on Covid-19 origins.”

Some also took issue with the fact that some potential respondents were identified using “snowball sampling”, in which experts already invited could recommend others – a procedure that could skew the sample if scientists preferentially recommended like-minded people.

Many respondents seem to have made up their minds. Does that mean they think no further origin research is needed?

Not at all. Only 12% of respondents said no further studies are necessary: 37% said “some” additional research is needed, and more than half, including 43% of virologists, said studies should continue because “major gaps” remain in the investigations done so far.

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Science article – Virologists and epidemiologists back natural origin for COVID-19, survey suggests (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

New studies point COVID origin evidence to Wuhan wet market

 

‘Strong evidence’ of COVID-19’s origin in Wuhan live-animal market

 

COVID-19 Wuhan lab escape theory gets a second look

 

WHO report on COVID-19’s Wuhan origins ‘raises more questions than answers’

 

 

 

 

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