"A mysterious lung disease has broken out in the central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan." It all started with this news in December 2019 – at the time, hardly anyone could have guessed what was to come.
A good three years later, the world is different: millions of people are dead. But vaccines and treatment options have been developed, and the global economy is recovering. In short: The most severe phase of the coronavirus pandemic seems to be over, even if, according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute, more than 100 people continue to die every day in Germany alone as a result of infection with the Sars-CoV-2 pathogen.
But one question is still open a good three years after the first cases of illness, despite all the research: Where does the virus come from?
US authorities have now raised the issue again, led by the FBI and the Department of Energy. And federal authorities are supporting the controversial theory that the pathogen entered the world through a laboratory accident at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. "The FBI has been assuming this for some time," director Christopher Wray told Fox News.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Energy, which the US government had also tasked with investigating the origin, also assumes that a laboratory glitch led to the pandemic, albeit with a “low” degree of certainty and "little trust" in the thesis. It is not known what the authorities have come to their conclusions in detail.
However, according to the White House, there is still no uniform view in the US government on how to assess the reports. Because other authorities continue to believe that the virus originated naturally. "The intelligence community and the rest of the government are still looking into this," said National Security Council communications director John Kirby.
The still unknown transmission route of the virus to humans has been the cause of speculation since the beginning of the pandemic, but also of conspiracy myths.
The fact is: The Institute of Virology is researching corona viruses and it is only around 25 kilometers from the animal market in the Chinese metropolis. However, an investigation report by the World Health Organization (WHO) from 2021 rejected the laboratory theory and came to the interim result that the pathogen probably found its way to humans via an undisclosed animal species as an intermediate host. After the investigation, China was accused of obstructing the WHO experts.
At least in Germany, a thesis paper by the Hamburg physicist Roland Wiesendanger caused a stir in early 2021. The scientist wrote that "both the number and the quality of the evidence point to a laboratory accident at the Wuhan City Virology Institute as the cause of the current pandemic".
However, the paper was widely criticized as unscientific. The researcher merely presented a "compilation of other people's texts and personal comments," criticized Volker Stollorz from the non-profit Science Media Center (SMC) in Cologne, which supports journalists in reporting on science, in Stern. "This is completely unacceptable science communication." The University of Hamburg also distanced itself from Wiesendanger's work.
The Chinese government has repeatedly rejected allegations that the laboratory accident was covered up. Beijing's foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Monday the search for the origin of the virus is a scientific matter and should "not be politicized".
At the request of the DPA news agency, the Federal Ministry of Health made it clear that it had "no own findings that currently support this laboratory hypothesis".
Either way, without extensive cooperation between China and international experts, it will remain difficult to trace the transmission path of the coronavirus to humans. FBI Director Wray noted in his interview that the Chinese government had "done its best" to "hinder and obscure" the work of the US government and foreign partners.
Even three years after the first news about a "mysterious lung disease" there is still a lot of work to be done by the secret services, authorities and science until there is definitive proof of one or the other theory.
Sources: Robert Koch Institute, FBI, Fox News, "Wall Street Journal", World Health Organization, DPA and AFP news agency