Burden Of Proof On Deniers Of Lab-Origin, Disheartening To See No Proper Probe: Scientist Alina Chan On Covid-Origin

The virus emerging in China made it much more difficult to ask if it had come from a lab accident and an individual raising such a question would get accused of being a racist, unqualified, a conspiracy theorist, or an attention-seeker, says scientist and author Alina China in an interview.

Molecular biologist Dr Alina Chan is Scientific Advisor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and co-author of VIRAL: The Story of the Origin of Covid-19.

For most of 2020, the question of the origin of the Covid-19 was fairly settled. The mainstream consensus was that SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, had jumped from animals into humans, and anyone saying otherwise was a conspiracy theorist. However, the conclusive evidence for the consensus then and now is the same — zilch. 

Even as well-established scientists produced a consensus on the natural origin of Covid-19, some scientists, open-source investigators, and a small minority of journalists pursued the possibility that Covid-19 could have originated in a lab. Molecular biologist Dr Alina Chan was one of the first to publish a study on SARS-CoV-2 and call for an investigation into the possibility of a laboratory-origin. 

In May 2020, Alina and her colleagues published a pre-print study that noted that SARS-CoV-2 appeared to be pre-adapted to infect humans. It found that the virus resembled the late-stage SARS-CoV virus which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. The study noted, “Even the possibility that a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely.”

Alina has not looked back since the study. She began a scientific pursuit to understand the origin of Covid-19. She called out scientists for their conflicts of interest, highlighted the gain of function research by Chinese researchers, and explained complex scientific papers on Twitter. With veteran science writer Matt Ridley, she wrote the book VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, which documented the viral research in China and critiqued the outright denial of the possibility of Covid-19 originating in a lab.  

In an exclusive interview with Outlook’s Madhur Sharma, Alina, Scientific Advisor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, says that finding the origin of Covid-19 is extremely important for future preparedness and for pandemic prevention. Contrary to the champions of gain of function research, including influential collaborators of Chinese researchers, she highlights that all such research over the years failed to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic and the world did not get any head-start in developing medicines or vaccines. The interview:

Please share your views on whether the initial dismissal of the lab-origin argument by scientists was because of their vested interests —since some of them were working on similar lines or collaborating with Wuhan scientists— or was it because of genuine reasons such as disbelief in the idea of a lab accident.

These scientists clearly had reasonably perceived conflicts of interest, such as being funders or collaborators of the scientists in Wuhan. They should have been more transparent about these relationships with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This way, readers in early 2020 would have seen that the Proximal Origin letter was driven by advocates of risky virus research and scientists who might get blamed if the pandemic did start in a Wuhan lab.

Regardless of whether they truly changed their minds, why didn't their letter acknowledge the experts who persuaded them that the virus was natural and advised the letter? 

The attitude of scientists and journalists to the possibility of a lab-origin of Covid-19 has shifted in the last two years. Do you believe the governments have also had an equal shift in their attitudes and whether they appear to be genuinely interested in investigating potential lab-origin?

The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses have been highly redacted. Do you see this as a sign of unwillingness to address uncomfortable aspects of Covid-origin debate — such as US funding of Chinese research?

The Freedom of Information Act responses (FOIAs) seem to be largely about a small group of influential scientists, not about the larger picture of US funding of Chinese research which is easy to find public information about online. 

Do you believe that we would be currently having a much better understanding of Covid-origin if the governments —supported by scientists— would have pursued Chinese research with the depth that you and others have through open-source evidence?

Until today, no government has conducted a public investigation into the origin of Covid-19 where collaborators and funders of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) have had to hand over their email communications and research documents. I suspect this is because many governments are made of leaders and parties that often don’t agree on whether it is a priority to find out how the pandemic started. But it is disheartening that it has been three years and no proper investigation has been launched despite the unprecedented impact of the pandemic.

How crucial do you believe is understanding Covid-origin with regard to being better prepared for a possible pandemic in the future? Why do you believe so?

Finding the origin of Covid-19 is extremely important for future preparedness and for pandemic prevention. Currently, because there is no definitive answer to whether the virus came from the wildlife trade or from a lab, there is very little impetus to take real action to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. There are still millions of wild animals being trafficked or farmed. There are still numerous laboratories engaged in high risk research that might result in the release of pandemic pathogens.


The gain of function research involving coronaviruses is key to the push for Covid lab-origin investigation. Have researchers fulfilled stated objectives of gain of function research over the years and do you believe the potential benefits outweigh potential risks?

When the pandemic began, the Wuhan researchers who had been hunting novel coronaviruses refused to share their virus database and their US collaborator even said there was nothing relevant in their database. The vaccines and therapeutics in this pandemic were developed without having to use any of the novel viruses these scientists had found and experimented with. 

You have written in your book that your objective is an investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 and that you don’t champion one side —natural- or lab-origin— over the other but you advocate a proper scrutiny of both with an emphasis on the laboratory side since it has been dismissed by influential people since the beginning.


In light of the information that has surfaced since the book was published, are you comfortable leaning towards the lab-origin and giving it a better likelihood? Do you believe the burden of proof is now with those outright denying the lab-origin?  

Yes, I do lean towards the lab-origin now because of the Defuse proposal, which is also described in the book VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19. The burden of proof is on the people who claim they know how the pandemic started. We should be focused on gathering evidence instead of trying to close the case without a proper investigation.


When you first began tweeting about the Covid-origin debate, did you have an idea that you’d become one of the most well-known persons in the world on the subject? When did it first hit you that you are now central to the Covid-origin debate and how has that affected your everyday life?

Looking back, I often question whether I would still have done this if I could foresee what would happen. My life would certainly be a lot more peaceful if I hadn’t got involved in this controversy. When you work on a question that many powerful people and governments don’t want investigated, it’s not surprising that your life gets very complicated and difficult.


Nonetheless, I am grateful to all the admirable scientists, journalists, and sleuths I have met along the way. Without their ingenuity and support, I don’t think I could have continued to keep pressing for a fair investigation for almost three years.

Do you believe that Chinese economic might and influence is also a reason why the lab-origin idea was mostly rejected in the beginning? Had first cases of Covid-19 began in some other country, such as India, do you believe the world would have still largely reacted with similar outright denial of the idea of lab-origin?

There were likely many different factors leading to the rejection of the lab origin hypothesis. In my view, as a scientist, the strongest factor was probably the reluctance of scientists to say the virus might have come from a lab. As a result, a small group of scientists were able to perpetuate the perception that the scientific consensus was a natural origin of the virus. 


The virus emerging in China certainly made it much more difficult to ask if it had come from a lab accident without getting into a lot of hot water. In the face of this false scientific consensus, an individual asking if the virus had come from a lab would get accused of being a racist, unqualified, a conspiracy theorist, or an attention-seeker.

Traditionally, we have been told to trust doctors and scientists. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a disconnect between commoners and experts in the medical and scientific communities as there were polarised debates over Covid-origin, treatment options, etc. Do you believe this affected the public trust in science?


I think it depends on the country and individual. Some surveys suggest public trust in science has been impacted depending on one’s political leanings. 

Thank you very much for the interview, Dr Alina. As we sign off, just one final question. Since it’s more or less certain that Chinese authorities will never be 100 per cent cooperative on the question of Covid-origin as it’s not an open democracy like the United States or India, do you believe there is a realistic chance of ever conclusively knowing how Covid-19 originated?

Yes, there is a good chance that the origin will one day be revealed and there is likely evidence outside of China that can be unearthed. With a pandemic of this scale, it is very likely that there are people, even outside of China, who know how it began. We have to push for a proper investigation to be conducted or for a brave whistleblower to come forth with the truth.



On the question of whether the US government is interested in investigating the Covid-origin, Alina referred to a New York Times story on the stalled legislation to set up a 9/11 Commission-type institution to investigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the bill has bipartisan support, The Times noted that the White House has privately resisted it. 

After saying she now leans towards the lab-origin, Alina referred to her article on Medium in which she presented the evidence for both the natural- and lab-origin of Covid-19. While noting there is no definitive evidence for either scenario, she notes the natural- and lab-origin can very well overlap, as you can get infected during work in lab or during virus-hunting in the nature. 


On the question of public trust in science during the pandemic, Alina directed us to a Pew Research report that found in February 2022 that the percentage of US adults having great deal of confidence in medical scientists fell from 40 to 29 during November 2020-February 2022.