The presidents of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a statement Tuesday urging that all investigations into the origins of Covid-19 “be guided by scientific principles” and warning against the proliferation of unfounded claims about the emergence of the deadly virus, which has killed more than 3.8 million people across the globe.
“Let scientific evidence determine the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” said Marcia McNutt, John Anderson, and Victor Dzau, referring to the virus that causes Covid-19. “Science is our best tool to ascertain, or to understand to the extent possible, the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19, which could help prevent future pandemics.”
“Misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, and personal attacks on scientists surrounding the different theories of how the virus emerged are unacceptable, and are sowing public confusion and risk undermining the public’s trust in science and scientists, including those still leading efforts to bring the pandemic under control,” the trio added.
The statement came after a top public health official in the Biden administration and U.S. President Joe Biden himself called for a closer investigation into Covid-19’s origins, which remain highly unclear and have been the topic of rampant speculation since the pandemic began last year. Some of the most alarmist and groundless claims about the origins of the virus have been enthusiastically amplified by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets.
The so-called “lab-leak” hypothesis was dismissed as “extremely unlikely” in an investigative report compiled by the World Health Organization in partnership with Beijing, which has rejected the lab-leak narrative as a baseless “conspiracy.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after the report was released in March that “although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Financial Times earlier this month that he has “always felt that the overwhelming likelihood… was that the virus jumped species,” citing “the experience we have had with SARS, MERS, Ebola, HIV, bird flu, [and] the swine flu pandemic of 2009.”
“But we need to keep on investigating until a possibility is proven,” Fauci added.
In their statement on Tuesday, the heads of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine acknowledged that possible explanations of Covid-19’s origins “range from natural zoonotic spillover (when a virus spreads from non-human animals to humans) to those that are associated with laboratory work.”
“Scientists need to be able to evaluate all of these scenarios, and all viable hypotheses, with credible data,” said McNutt, Anderson, and Dzau. “Data accessibility, transparency, and full cooperation from China, of course, will be essential for a proper and thorough investigation.”
“Although much still needs to be done to stop the pandemic, particularly in developing nations, science has made remarkable headway, especially through the rapid development of effective vaccines,” they continued. “The same scientific robustness, rigour, and cooperation should be applied to examining important questions about how the pandemic began.”