The WHA coronavirus resolution is not great for science

On May 19, member states of the WHO moved a vote in the World Health Assembly (WHA), asking for an independent investigation into the sources of the novel coronavirus.

Their exact demands were spelled out in a draft resolution that asked the WHO to, among other things, “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions”.

The resolution was backed by 62 countries, including India, and the decision to adopt it was passed with 116 votes in favour, out of 194. This fraction essentially indicates that the overwhelming majority of WHO’s member states want to ‘reform’ the organisation towards a better response to the pandemic, especially in terms of obtaining information that they believe China has been reluctant to share.

The resolution follows from Australia’s demand in April 2020 for a public inquiry against China, suggesting that the Asian superpower was responsible for the virus and the global outbreak (not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump expressed his support). Together with the fact that the document doesn’t once mention China, the resolution is likely an expression of concern that seeks to improve international access to biological samples, specific locations and research data necessary to find out how the novel coronavirus came to infect humans, and which animal or avian species were intermediate hosts.

As it happens, this arguably legitimate demand doesn’t preclude the possibility that the resolution is motivated, at least in part, by the need to explore what is in many political leaders’ view the ‘alternative’ that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The WHA vote passed and the independent investigation will happen – but by who or how is unclear. Let’s assume for now that some team or other comes together and conducts the requisite studies.

What if the team does find that the virus is not lab-made? Will those WHO member states, and/or their politicians back home, that were in favour of the resolution to explore the ‘lab hypothesis’ let the matter rest? Or will they point fingers at the WHO and claim it is too favourable to China, as President Trump has already done and to which the resolution’s reformatory language alludes?

In fact, the investigation is unlikely to zero in on the virus’s origins if they were natural because too much time has passed since the first zoonotic spillover event. The bread crumbs could have long faded by the time the investigation team sets out on its task. It won’t be impossible, mind, but it will be very difficult and likely require many months to conclude.

But what if the investigation somehow finds that the virus was engineered in a lab and then leaked, either deliberately or accidentally? Will the scientists and those who believed them (including myself) stand corrected?

They will not. There’s a simple reason why: they – we – have thus far not been given enough evidence to reach this conclusion.

Indeed, there is already sufficient explanation these days to claim that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin and insufficient explanation that it was engineered. A study published on March 17, 2020, collected evidence for the former (and many others continue to do so). An excerpt from the conclusion:

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimised RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

If there is any animosity at all directed at China for supposedly engineering the virus, the countries that backed the resolution could only have done so by actively ignoring the evidence that already exists to the contrary.

In this particular case, it becomes extremely important for the representatives of these countries to explain why they think the evidence that scientists have not been able to find actually exists, and that they are simply yet to discover it. That is, why do they think some pieces are missing from the puzzle?

There is of course room for a deeper counter-argument here, but it isn’t entirely tenable either. One could still argue that there might be a larger ‘super-theory’ that encompasses the present one even as it elucidates a non-natural origin for the virus. This is akin to the principle of correspondence in the philosophy of science. The advent of the theories of relativity did not invalidate the Newtonian theory of gravity. Instead, the former resemble the latter in the specific domain in which the latter is applicable. Similarly, a ‘super-theory’ of the virus’s origins could point to evidence of bioengineering even as its conclusions resemble the evidence I’m pointing to to ascertain that the virus is natural.

But even then, the question remains: Why do you think such a theory exists?

Without this information, we are at risk of wasting our time in each pandemic looking for alternate causes that may or may not exist, many of which are quite politically convenient as well.

Perhaps we can assimilate a sign of things to come based on Harsh Vardhan’s performance as the chairman of the WHA’s executive board. Vardhan was elected into this position at the same WHA that adopted the draft resolution, and his highest priority is likely to be the independent investigation that the resolution calls for. As it happens, according to OP8 of the resolution, the resolution:

… calls on international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to … address, and where relevant in coordination with Member States, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation particularly in the digital sphere, as well as the proliferation of malicious cyber-activities that undermine the public health response, and support the timely provision of clear, objective and science-based data and information to the public.

India as a member state is certainly a stakeholder, and Nitin Gadkari, one of the country’s senior ministers, recently said in an interview that the novel coronavirus was made in a lab. This is misinformation plain and simple, and goes against the call for the “timely provision of clear, objective and science-based information to the public”. Will the chair address this, please – or even future instances of such imprudence?

Ultimately, unless the investigation ends with the conspiracists changing their minds, the only outcome that seems to be guaranteed is that scientists will know their leaders no longer trust their work.

Featured image: The assembly hall of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, where the World Health Assembly usually meets. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.