A research team in Thailand collects bats in Sept. 2020 in an effort to understand the origins of the pandemic — part of a wave of recent research into bat-borne viruses.

New Documents Heighten Debate Over Coronavirus Origin

The dispute over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic grew more heated this week, as a pair of documents — one a scientific study, the other a leaked grant proposal — fueled speculation about the origin of a virus that has killed millions.

The new study reports that three close genetic relatives of SARS-CoV-2 have been found in bats in Laos. The finding, which has not yet been peer reviewed, could offer a fuller picture of the diverse coronaviruses circulating in bats, which potentially pose a threat to human safety.

The bat research was published on the preprint server Research Square in mid-September and reported on by Nature late last week. Led by researchers at Institut Pasteur in Paris, the team captured 645 bats near limestone caves in northern Laos, collected urine, feces, and blood samples, and then sequenced the genomes of some of the viruses they carried. (Bats are frequent incubators of dangerous viruses.)

Several of the viruses showed strong similarities to the novel coronavirus. “Our findings therefore indicate that bat-borne SARS-CoV-2-like viruses potentially infectious for humans” are circulating among some bat species in the region, the researchers write. If the paper bears out under the scrutiny of peer review, one of the viruses, dubbed BANAL-52, would be the closest relative to SARS-CoV-2 discovered so far.

For some researchers, the finding supports the argument that SARS-CoV-2, like most other pandemic-causing viruses, has an entirely natural origin, spilling over at some point from animals into humans. But the viruses found in Laos are not identical to SARS-CoV-2, and, on Twitter, molecular biologist Alina Chan, who has called for more scrutiny into a possible lab leak, said the Laos finding could actually be “important to the lab leak hypothesis.” Chan and other scientists have previously argued that researchers modifying a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 could have created and accidentally released the novel coronavirus — and, she noted, Wuhan-based researchers had been sampling coronaviruses from bats in Laos before the pandemic.

A newly published document related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology has also heated up the debate. A leaked grant proposal from 2018, obtained by a group of online activists, asks the U.S. government for funding to study bat-borne coronaviruses. The team behind the grant — which included the WIV — proposed to change how certain SARS-like viruses interact with a specific protein, furin, that’s found in human cells. Researchers have long been struck by the so-called “furin cleavage site” on SARS-CoV-2, and its existence has fueled speculation about human intervention in the virus’ evolution. “The work described in the proposal fits so well into that narrative of a ‘gain-of-function experiment gone wrong’ that some wondered if it might be too good to be true,” The Atlantic reported this week.

Reporting from The Atlantic and The Intercept indicates the document is genuine. The specific grant was never funded, though, and it’s not clear whether such research took place.

Still, the proposal promises to stoke questions about the pandemic’s origins — and ongoing concerns about how scientific agencies in the United States define and regulate research on dangerous pathogens.

Also in the News:

• NASA is rebuffing calls to rename its James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), named after a former agency administrator who critics say was complicit in government discrimination against LGBTQ people during the 1950s and 1960s. The $10 billion telescope — seen as a successor to Hubble and described by NASA as “the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built” — is scheduled to launch into orbit in December. But unlike Hubble and most other NASA observatories, JWST is named after a government official, not a scientist. As NASA head, Webb presided over the famed Apollo missions — but also, some say, was involved in an orchestrated effort to purge homosexual employees from government jobs. Controversy over the name has bubbled since at least 2015, when sex columnist Dan Savage wrote an article questioning the name. Now, as the launch date draws closer, more than 1,200 people, most of them astronomers or astronomy enthusiasts, have petitioned NASA to rename the telescope. The agency told NPR this week that it had investigated the matter and “found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name.” Yet some critics find it concerning that NASA has released few details of its investigation. “NASA is an agency that knows about research,” tweeted cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who coauthored the petition. “So, they know when you want to make a claim, you show your evidence.” (NPR)

• The Google-owned video platform YouTube announced this week that it would expand on its existing ban on Covid-19 vaccine misinformation by removing all anti-vaccine content that erroneously suggests that the shots are ineffective at preventing transmission, or that overstates the risks of the vaccine. In a blog post, YouTube also indicated that it would take down videos from prominent anti-vaxxers. “We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general,” the post said, “and we’re now at a point where it’s more important than ever to expand the work we started with Covid-19 to other vaccines.” Critics have warned for months that YouTube is one of the major disseminators of vaccine misinformation, pointing out that other platforms had tackled general vaccine misinformation earlier. Facebook, for instance, announced a ban on all false statements about vaccines seven months ago. “Why is YouTube so much worse at stopping misinformation than Facebook and Twitter?” asked journalist Aaron Mak in a piece for Slate. Still, researchers who study the spread of misinformation described YouTube’s decision as good news. “Like always, the devil’s in the details,” Lisa Fazio, an associate professor at Vanderbilt, told The Washington Post. “But I do think it’s a step in the right direction.” (The Washington Post)

• The retraction of a December 2020 paper announcing the discovery of a 110-million-year-old feathered dinosaur in Brazil has brought renewed attention to a dispute over the fossil’s rightful home. According to the paper, the fossil was brought to Germany with the proper permit. But the exact details of its journey to the country are disputed. Many in the Brazilian science community have accused the paper’s authors and the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe — the institution that now houses the fossil — of removing it illegally. While the SMNK has denied this claim, the journal Cretaceous Research told Science that it opted to retract the paper “given that concerns regarding permissions for specimen export remain unresolved 9 months after its initial publication.” The move has bolstered calls for the repatriation of other specimens as well. The outcome, Aline Ghilardi, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, told Science, “may help to reduce the interest in illegal removal of fossils from countries that protect their heritage, such as Brazil and Mexico, and [it] definitely will encourage more transparent and ethical research.” (Science)

• In a rare move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species extinct. The list of lost species includes the flat pigtoe — a freshwater mussel from the American South — as well as eight species of Hawaiian birds and one plant. According to NPR, the announcement comes after government scientists exhausted all efforts to save these species, which were added to the endangered species list beginning in the 1960s. The scientists cite climate change as one of the main reasons for the extinctions, and they warn that a warming planet will keep threatening other endangered species. Other factors threatening the survival of endangered species include industrial development, water pollution, logging, and competition from invasive species. Several scientists, however, argue that there is a possibility that some of these species could reappear. At least for the ivory-billed woodpecker, conservationists have argued the extinction announcement was premature — and that such declarations can affect funding for future preservation efforts. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which tracks extinctions of endangered species globally, has not declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct, as they believe it’s possible the birds still exist in Cuba. (NPR)

• And finally: The British government announced its intention to relax regulations for gene-edited crops, now that the United Kingdom is no longer under European Union regulations following Brexit. E.U. regulations require gene-edited crops to undergo the same extensive vetting procedure as genetically-modified crops. (Gene-editing involves smaller changes than genetic modification.) The approval process takes years, and member states must vote to greenlight new varieties. Under the new U.K. policy, gene-edited plants will be vetted through the same process as new crops that have not undergone gene editing. “Gene editing has the ability to harness the genetic resources that nature has provided,” said U.K. environment secretary George Eustice, according to the BBC. “It is a tool that could help us tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face.” Under the new U.K. regulations, the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland will get to choose whether or not to adopt the changes. (BBC News)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.