Outside the Virus Lab

Scientists have pursued the origins of Covid-19 from the very beginning of the pandemic. In February 2020 the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of China’s top virus laboratories, published research comparing the SARS-Cov-2 virus to a range of other coronaviruses held in their own collection. Based on the phylogenetic comparison of genome sequences, the Wuhan Institute found that SARS-Cov-2 shared 96% sequence identity with a coronavirus isolated from horseshoe bats, suggesting SARS-Cov-2 had a “probable bat origin. Other sampling and bioinformatic studies subsequently proposed snakes, pangolins, and mink as possible sources of viral spillover to humans, pointing to “wet markets” or wildlife trade as points of origin. In ways reminiscent of the responses to pandemic influenza and SARS (2003), phylogenetic accounts of relations between viruses were transformed into historical narratives of how the virus emerged from animal to human populations.

Meanwhile, however, a more marginal theory has spread among a few scientists and journalists: that the source of the virus was none other than the Wuhan Institute of Virology itself. Pointing to precisely the same archive of bat coronaviruses as evidence of blame rather than scientific achievement, these critics propose that SARS-Cov-2 did not “spillover” from wildlife to humans, but was more likely to have been accidentally released from the inside of the biosecure lab.

Despite their differences, what is often overlooked in this controversy is that both theories are rooted in the dominance of a single paradigm of pandemic preparednessviral discovery. In both cases, the protagonist of the story is a powerful virus laboratory. For some, the virus lab enabled the rapid identification of the novel pathogen, thereby facilitating the development of tests and countermeasures, and continues to be our best resource to trace out the ecological source of spillover. For others, the collection of viruses from wildlife reservoirs and their investigation inside the lab may have caused the pandemic, and continues to pose serious risks of future accidental outbreaks.

Rather than judging whether the virology lab is hero or villain, however, I instead want to look at what the predominance of this paradigm has obscured about the origins of Covid-19—what I call the agnotology of virology. In this case, I am not suggesting that viral discovery intentionally obscured important knowledge about the origins of pandemics—rather, I argue that the very power and success of the virus laboratory produced ignorance because of the “selective” nature of its attention. So what is ignored by virus discovery?  What ignorance is produced as a corollary to the knowledge created by viral discovery research?

In my book Virulent Zones, I explored the development of the viral discovery paradigm in the history of global health efforts to contain pandemic influenza. What I found is that during the 1970s, researchers had begun to explore “the ecology of influenza, hypothesizing that flu pandemics are caused when viruses jump from animals to humans. Yet the manner in which they produced scientific facts about that ecology was always in the language of virology (rather than ecology)— for example, after showing that a swine influenza virus and a human influenza virus will exchange genes under laboratory conditions, virologist Robert Webster claimed that pandemic influenza viruses probably emerged from farmed swine. In other words, research on pandemic influenza relied on a “molecularization” of disease ecology—although scientific discourse made ecological claims about the role of duck farming practices or pig populations in pandemic emergence, experimental systems remained calibrated to the molecular scale of viral genetics. More recently, in so-called “gain of function” research, some scientists even argued that the best way to predict the future natural evolution of influenza viruses in a “wild” ecology was to artificially drive viral evolution inside the laboratory, by mutating the virus using reverse genetics or serial passage in lab animals.

In my fieldwork (conducted in 2010-2014), on the other hand, I followed a group of veterinarians and ecologists who took the search for the origins of influenza out of the lab and into the field. Working in China’s farms and wetlands, they began to turn the “nonvirological” factors of viral emergence into objects of scientific inquiry, building experimental systems at the scale of landscapes and multispecies ecosystems rather than the molecular scale of viral proteins and genes. As these scientists argued, predictions or forecasts based on the viral discovery paradigm are often poorly equipped to monitor “gradual changes in anthropogenic, environmental and wildlife factors” that may drive new viruses to emerge. Put another way, viral discovery tells us a lot about how viruses mutate and reassort, but not enough about the “mutations” and “reassortments” of livestock economies, rural-urban ecosystems, and cultural practices that drive viral emergence.

Today, however, the molecularization of disease ecology is well underway in the search for the origins of Covid-19: while hundreds if not thousands of articles have been published on the phylogenetic relationships between SARS-Cov-2 and other coronaviruses—many focused on single genes (ACE2) or even single mutations—we still know very little about the ecological relations between humans and other animals in or around Wuhan that could have caused a spillover event. Meanwhile, the accusation of an accidental laboratory release points to the broader risks of the viral discovery paradigm, and not only in China – by recreating virus ecology and evolution in the lab in order to “predict” future pandemic emergence, gain of function researchers may unintentionally create the pandemic they hope to prevent.

As the search for the origins of Covid-19 continues, we should celebrate the success of the viral discovery paradigm in uncovering the molecular determinants of viral pathogenicity and acknowledge the risks inherent to gain of function experiments. But most of all, we should also recognize that viral discovery, so powerful at making visible the inside of the virus, is poorly equipped for exposing the conditions outside the virus that drive its emergence or spillover: an outside that is often the source of viral pathogenicity, and the true origin of pandemics.

Lyle Fearnley is Assistant Professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design, and author of Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter (Duke University Press, 2020).