8 Questions From a Disease Detective on the Pandemic’s Origins

Dr. Daniel R. Lucey wants answers to pointed 
questions that bear on how the coronavirus leapt from bats to humans.

In a recent blog post, Dr. Daniel R. Lucey, an 
infectious disease specialist at Georgetown 
University, offered guidance to World Health 
Organization investigators who are headed to 
China to explore the origins of the coronavirus 
pandemic.Credit...O’Neill Institute for National 
and Global Health Law at Georgetown University

By <>William J. Broad
    * July 8, 2020
For decades, Dr. Daniel R. Lucey, an infectious 
disease specialist at Georgetown University, has 
crisscrossed the globe to study epidemics and 
their origins. His attention now is on the 
Covid-19 pandemic, which first came to public 
notice late last year in Wuhan, China. Its exact 
beginnings are sufficiently clouded that the 
World Health Organization has begun a wide 
inquiry into its roots. The advance team is to 
leave for China this weekend, and Dr. Lucey has 
publicly encouraged the health agency to address 
what he considers eight top questions.

“It’s not a legitimate investigation if the team 
doesn’t ask them,” Dr. Lucey said in a recent 
interview. He cited public reports and scientific 
articles as starting points for his queries, 
adding that Beijing “has never come out and answered these questions.”

Clear answers, Dr. Lucey said, would cast light 
on how the deadly pathogen spread so rapidly and, 
perhaps, how exactly the outbreak began. China 
has not been forthcoming with information, and 
the Trump administration 
inflamed the situation with threats and bullying. 
has charged, without presenting evidence, that 
the microbe jumped to humans from a Wuhan lab. On 
Tuesday, after long 
to do so, the administration began formal steps to end its W.H.O. membership.

A student of epidemics, Dr. Lucey has traveled to 
Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Middle 
East, at times as a caregiver. In 2014, working 
for Doctors Without Borders, he treated Ebola 
patients in Liberia. He posed his eight questions 
last month in a post for his 
which he writes for the 
<>Infectious Diseases 
Society of America. The post came in response to 
an announcement by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 
director general of the W.H.O., that the agency 
would be sending a team to China to investigate 
the pathogen’s source ­ a move long sought by the Trump administration.

“We can fight the virus better when we know 
everything about the virus, including how it 
started,” Mr. Ghebreyesus 
on June 29 at a regular briefing in Geneva. In 
May, the World Health Assembly, the W.H.O.’s top 
decision-making body, 
a resolution calling on the agency to work with 
other international groups to identify the 
“source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population.”

Ever since the outbreak erupted late last year in 
central China, the global rumor mill has buzzed 
with speculation and conspiracy theories. Experts 
out the idea that the pathogen was 
as a bioweapon. They agree that it began as a bat 
virus that probably evolved naturally in another 
mammal to become adept at infecting and killing 
humans. But so far, after months of concentrated 
research at sites and laboratories in China and 
elsewhere around the globe, no clear intermediary has come to light.

The first three of Dr. Lucey’s eight questions 
center on the Wuhan wet market ­ a sprawling 
marketplace that sold fresh fish and meat before 
being shut down. It 
initially viewed as the viral point of origin. 
That idea was quickly 
into doubt when 
study by Chinese scientists reported that roughly 
a third of the earliest hospitalized victims ­ 
including the first ­ had never visited the 
a May blog, Dr. Lucey quoted the head of China’s 
Center for Disease Control as ruling it out as 
the pandemic’s place of origin. The market, the 
Chinese health official said, “is just another victim.”

of environmental samples were reportedly 
collected at the wet market, producing 33 
positive results, but few details have been made 
public. Dr. Lucey 
Were any of the positive results linked to human 
infections? And from what kinds of surfaces ­ 
doorknobs, cutting boards, sewage, garbage trucks 
­ were the samples collected? So far, none of the 
reported positive tests have come from animals.

His fourth question widens the scope of 
investigation to other markets in Wuhan and 
across China. Were any samples collected from 
animals “now known to be susceptible to the 
virus” ­ including cats, tigers, mink and 
ferrets? (Ferrets are routinely used to gauge the 
transmissibility of human flu viruses.) He also 
asks about pangolins, 
were initially considered a possible intermediary in the human outbreak.
Dr. Lucey’s fifth question addresses 
detailed report in The South China Morning Post, 
published in Hong Kong, that identified an early 
human coronavirus case on Nov. 17 in Hubei 
province. The province is the size of Washington 
State, and Wuhan is its capital. In March, Dr. 
a blog post about the report, which described the 
virus’s rapid spread in Hubei, based on 
information that the report said came from the 
government. Now, Dr. Lucey is urging the 
investigators from the World Health Organization 
to determine where each of these early Hubei 
cases were reported, if indeed they occurred, and 
whether any other “documented or suspected” human 
infections may have occurred even earlier.

The sixth and seventh questions go to whether the 
deadly pathogen leapt to humans from a 
laboratory. Although some intelligence analysts 
and scientists have entertained that scenario, no 
direct evidence has come to light suggesting that 
the coronavirus escaped from one of Wuhan’s labs.

Even so, given the wet market’s downgrading in 
the investigation, “It is important to address 
questions about any potential laboratory source 
of the virus, whether in Wuhan or elsewhere,” Dr. Lucey wrote in his blog post.

To that end, he urges the W.H.O. investigators to 
look for any signs of “gain of function” research 
­ the deliberate enhancement of pathogens 
make them more dangerous. The technique is highly 
contentious. Critics question its merits and warn 
that it could lead to catastrophic lab leaks. 
Proponents see it as a legitimate way to learn 
how viruses and other infectious organisms might 
evolve to infect and kill people, and thus help 
in devising new protections and precautions.

Debate over its wisdom 
in 2011 after researchers announced success in 
making the highly lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu 
easily transmissible through the air between 
ferrets, at least in the laboratory.

In his blog, Dr. Lucey asks “what, if any,” 
gain-of-function studies were done on 
coronaviruses in Wuhan, elsewhere in China, or in 
collaboration with foreign laboratories.

“If done well scientifically, then this 
investigation should allay persistent concerns 
about the origin of this virus,” he wrote. “It 
could also help set an improved standard for 
investigating and stopping the awful viruses, and 
other pathogens, in the decades ahead.”

Finally, Dr. Lucey asks the W.H.O. team to learn 
more about China’s main influenza research lab, a 
high-security facility in Harbin, the capital of 
China’s northernmost province. In May, he notes, 
Chinese paper in the journal Science reported 
that two virus samples from Wuhan were studied 
there in great detail early this year, including 
in a variety of animals. It reported that cats 
and ferrets were highly susceptible to the 
pathogen; dogs were only mildly susceptible; and 
pigs, chickens and ducks were not susceptible at all.

In his travels, Dr. Lucey went to Brazil to study 
the Zika virus; to Madagascar to study pneumonic 
plague; to Jordan to study the Middle East 
respiratory syndrome, or MERS; and to Guangzhou, 
China, to study severe acute respiratory 
syndrome, or SARS. He said his wide travels over 
the decades had informed his current inquiry.

In an email, he added that the World Health 
Organization was aware of his eight questions and 
had given him “good feedback.”

Dr. Lucey likened his queries to the process of 
unlocking a large building. “The key thing is to 
open the door,” he said in the interview. “Where 
you go once you get inside, that’s beyond me.”

Listen to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, with guest 
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