Caught within the Crossfire Over Covid’s Origins

In the early days of the pandemic, scientists reported one comforting property of the new coronavirus: it appeared to be very stable. The virus didn’t mutate very quickly, making it an easier target for treatments and vaccines.

At the time, the slow mutation rate struck a young scientist as strange. “That really woke my ears up,” said Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Chan wondered if the new virus was somehow “prepackaged” to thrive in humans even before it even started to break out.

“When the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in Wuhan in late 2019, it looked like it had already picked up the mutations it needed to spread very well among people,” said Dr. Chan. “It was good to go.”

The hypothesis, widely controversial by other scientists, was the basis for a controversial paper that was put online in May 2020 and in which Dr. Chan and her colleagues questioned the prevailing consensus that the deadly virus passed naturally from bats to humans via an intermediate host animal.

The question she put on the table has not gone away. At the end of May, President Biden, dissatisfied with an ambiguous report he had received on the subject, urged US intelligence agencies to dig deeper into the original issue. The new report is now due every day.

In last year’s work, Dr. Chan and her colleagues said the virus may have passed into humans and circulated undetected for months while it accumulated mutations.

Perhaps, they said, the virus was already well adapted to humans in bats or some other animal. Or maybe it adapted to human while studying in a laboratory and accidentally leaked.

Dr. Chan soon found himself in the middle of a vortex. An article in The Mail On Sunday, a British tabloid, headlined: “Coronavirus did NOT come from animals in the Wuhan market.”

Many high-ranking virologists criticized and unceremoniously rejected her work because she did not have the expertise to speak on the subject, that she slandered her specialty, and that her statements would alienate China and hinder future investigation.

Some called her a conspiracy theorist. Others rejected her ideas because she is a postdoctoral researcher, a young scientist. One virologist, Benjamin Neuman, called her hypothesis “silly”.

A Chinese news agency accused her of “dirty behavior and a lack of basic academic ethics,” and readers accumulated that she was a “traitor to the race” because of her Chinese ancestry.

“There were days and weeks when I was very scared and for many days I didn’t sleep,” said Dr. Chan, 32, in a recent interview at a sidewalk cafe not far from the Broad Institute.

The story of Dr. Chan reflects how polarizing questions about the origins of the virus have become. The vast majority of scientists believe it came from bats and was transmitted to humans through an intermediate host animal, although none have been identified.

Some of them believe that a laboratory accident, specifically at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, has not been ruled out and has not been adequately investigated. And some suggest that the institute’s research on harvesting bats and bat coronaviruses in the wild may have played a role.

Scientists from all sides say they have been threatened with violence and berated for their positions. The attacks were so severe that Dr. Chan worried about her personal safety and took new precautions, wondering if she was being followed and changing her daily routines.

The backlash made her fearful that her future career was at risk, and she wrote her boss a letter apologizing and offering to resign.

“I thought I committed career suicide, not just for myself, but for the whole group that wrote the paper,” said Dr. Chan. “I thought I had done everyone a great disservice by getting caught up in this controversy.”


Aug. 24, 2021, 7:58 a.m. ET

But dr. Chan’s boss, Benjamin E. Deverman, who was a co-author of the paper, refused to accept their resignation, saying only that they were naive not to anticipate the heated reaction.

Dr. Chan’s role was so controversial that many scholars refused to discuss it at all. One of the few virologists willing to speak out flatly denied the possibility of a laboratory leak.

“I believe there is no way the virus was genetically modified or man-made,” said Susan Weiss, co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronavires and Other Emerging Pathogens at the University of Pennsylvania, who also denied the possibility that that the virus may accidentally escape the lab. “It’s clearly zoonotic, from bats.”

Others said Dr. Chan is brave to put alternative hypotheses on the table.

“Alina Chan deserves credit for challenging the conventional narrative and asking that question,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. “It is not easy for a young scientist to openly question an established narrative.”

(Dr. Iwasaki also attributed a loose group of internet detectives known by the acronym DRASTIC.)

“The extent to which the original question has become so inflammatory and polarized is overwhelming,” said Dr. Iwasaki. “The fact is, we don’t know exactly where the virus came from. It was important to point this out. “

When she was recently drinking unsweetened iced tea and chatting about her ideas, Dr. Chan being an unusual provocateur. She insisted she was still in the dark about the origins of the virus, torn between the natural route and the hypotheses of laboratory accidents “50-50”.

No scientific journal has ever published their work. Determined to call attention to what they believed to be a critical question that needed to be answered to prevent a future pandemic, Dr. Chan to Twitter, mastered the art of tutorial threads and garnered followers.

She is now in “worse shape” than before, said Dr. Chan: “Now I’m being attacked from both sides. The scientists are still attacking me, and the advocates of the laboratory leak are attacking me too, because I’m not going to go all the way and say it was from a laboratory. I keep telling them that I can’t because there is no evidence. “

Critics say Dr. Chan bears some responsibility for the backlash.

Earlier last year, she appeared on Twitter to accuse scientists and editors of “covering up, directly or indirectly, serious research integrity issues related to major SARS-2-like viruses for pause and reflection,” added, “If your actions are the Disguise the origins of SARS2, you are involved in the deaths of millions of people. “(She subsequently deleted the tweet.)

Proponents of lab leaks – whom they have called “an apologist” to virologists – were also upset by the fact that Dr. Chan received so much credit for putting the issue on the public agenda.

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said in early 2020 that they found a virus in their database whose genome sequence was 96.2 percent similar to that of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus.

But it was internet detectives and scientists who found the virus matched one harvested in a cave linked to a pneumonia outbreak in 2012 that killed three miners – and that the Wuhan’s genomic database Bat coronavirus laboratory was taken offline at the end of 2019.

Dr. Chan also signed a contract with Harper Collins, for an undisclosed amount, to co-write a book with Matt Ridley, a bestselling but controversial science writer who has been criticized for downplaying the seriousness of climate change.

Denying allegations that she wrote the book for financial reasons, she says she just wants a full record of the facts that will last longer than a Twitter feed. She plans to donate the proceeds to a Covid-related charity.

“I don’t need any money or frills,” she said.

Dr. Chan was born in Vancouver, but her parents returned to their native Singapore as a child. She was a teenager when the SARS epidemic struck there.

“People died from SARS and it was on TV all the time,” she recalls. “I was 15 and it really stuck with me. There were pictures of body bags in hospital corridors. “

“When Covid started, a lot of people in Boston thought it wasn’t a big deal that the flu was worse,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is serious business.'”

After high school, she returned to Canada, studied biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, and completed a Ph.D. in medical genetics. At 25 she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and then worked for Dr. Deverman, the director of the Vector Engineering Research Group at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Dr. Chan is “insightful, incredibly determined, and seemingly fearless,” said Dr. Deverman, and she has an uncanny ability to “synthesize large amounts of complex information, distill every detail down to the most critical points, and then communicate it in easy-to-understand language.”

A self-proclaimed workaholic, Dr. Chan met a scientist a few years ago while on hiatus at an academic research conference.

“We took the morning off and went to town hall and came back to the conference and my boss said, ‘Where have you been?'” She said. “I thought, ‘I got married.’ I don’t even have a ring. My mother is horrified. “

She disagrees about the origin of the virus. “I’m leaning towards laboratory leak theory now, but there are days when I seriously consider that it could come from nature,” she said.

“Most of the time, I feel really, really sorry for the scientists involved as possible sources for the virus,” she said.

Regarding Shi Zhengli, the leading Chinese virologist who leads research on emerging infectious diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Chan: “I’m really sad about your situation. The stake couldn’t be higher. “

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