Lab leak? Animal transmission? Why David Relman and his colleagues told the world that we need to investigate both of COVID-19’s origin stories.
A statement from the president of the United States. Calls for a congressional investigation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of articles around the globe. And a vigorously renewed conversation about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. All and more have resulted from the May 2021 letter in Science signed by 18 prominent scientists and spearheaded by David Relman, a professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Titled “Investigate the origins of COVID-19,” the letter states, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.” It criticizes the World Health Organization’s recent report on the origins of COVID-19 for not giving the two theories “balanced consideration.” This letter, however, was not Relman’s first statement on the subject; that was “To stop the next pandemic, we need to unravel the origins of COVID-19,” published in November 2020 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to less fanfare. Stanford spoke with Relman to understand the genesis of the Science letter, why it had such impact and what the next steps are in investigating the origins of COVID-19.