Covid pandemic may have been started by scientists, professor tells UN

Scientists work in the laboratory in Wuhan, China
Scientists work in the laboratory in Wuhan, China - Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Covid could have been created by a “research-related incident”, the UN has heard at the launch of a report calling for better regulation of experiments that could spark pandemics.

Dr Filippa Lentzos, an associate professor of science and international security at King’s College London, said it was important to acknowledge the pandemic may have been started by scientists.

The comments were made at the launch of a report by the Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks, which is calling for better regulations on science that puts large numbers of people in danger.

Speaking at the UN in New York, Dr Lentzos, a member of the task force, said: “We have to acknowledge the fact that the pandemic could have started from some research-related incident.

“Are we going to find that out? In my view, I think it’s very unlikely that we will. We need to do better in future. We are going to see more ambiguous events.

There will be an outbreak and we won’t know if it’s natural, deliberate or accidental and as an international community we need to find ways in which we can investigate that.

“For our purposes what is important we need to acknowledge that it could have been, and so what should your responses be.”

Covid appeared eight miles from lab

Coronavirus emerged just eight miles from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in Wuhan, China, which had a history of working on gain-of-function experiments – work that increases the potency of viruses – and was known for lax security.

The Chinese authorities have refused to allow a proper investigation and have blocked attempts to access laboratories, research notebooks or sample databases.

WIV has since been stripped of its funding by the US after the Department of Human Health and Services (HHS) ruled it had been conducting dangerous experiments that increased the potency of coronaviruses before the pandemic.

In its new report, the task force authors argue that modern virology research has “increased the ability of scientists to create and work with viruses that could accidentally or intentionally cause harm in some cases with potentially devastating global consequences”.

“If a virus has true pandemic potential, the entire world can be affected by an accident,” the authors warn.

Author David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, said although the task force did not “explicitly address” the origins of Covid, the question “does underlie the premises, assumptions and purpose of this work”.

The report says that research with the potential to spark a pandemic has a high probability of near-term benefit to the public globally and should have international scrutiny, which goes beyond normal health and safety. And it should only be carried out when no other alternative is available.

The team also called for new protocols for sample collection and laboratory work. It is feared that the virus might have spread from Wuhan after scientists collected infected bats from remote caves, often not wearing adequate personal protective equipment.

Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge and the task force co-chairman, told the UN that it was important to ‘regulate activities with tissues from, for example, bats.’

The task force was convened by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and has taken a year to produce its recommendations. The team said it would work with the UN and the World Health Organisation to implement the changes.