The Energy Department operates 17 national laboratories whose work spans from nuclear weapons to biosafety. In response to Covid19, the agency created the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory, and last year published a report on how it would respond to future pandemics. The agency also has its own intelligence and counterintelligence office including a Z-division tasked with covert studies of nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. Those recommendations, which could determine how virology experiments are conducted, will land in a politically charged environment. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, leveraging their newly acquired subpoena power, have launched an investigation of the pandemic that will include the origin of covid and what they believe could be the involvement of American scientists and government officials independent of that rancorous debate about covid’s origin, the National Institutes of Health is preparing an overhaul of the policies on government-funded research, and scientists on the agency’s biosecurity advisory board released draft recommendations from its working groups on Friday urging intensified government oversight of experiments on dangerous pathogens. However other US intelligence divisions think a natural origin is the more plausible root of the pandemic. A team of scientists last year also reported that they found more evidence that the virus leapt into humans at the Human Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where the earliest known cases clustered. All of these assessments, however, acknowledge their findings are mired in uncertainty and that major gaps remain in both the lab leak and natural origin hypotheses. So far, no one has figured out which animal served as the intermediate host for SARS-CoV-2 before it infected humans and scientists have yet to find a direct ancestor of the virus in nature. The most similar virus was found in bats in Laos more than 1,500 miles away from Wuhan.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers have also conducted their own investigations. Republicans on the Senate health committee issued an interim report in October 2022 that concluded the COVID-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. Since then government agencies with intelligence and biology capabilities have kept looking. Though the Department of Energy may not be the first federal institution to come to mind to investigate Covid19’s origins, it has a lot of resources suited to the task. In the wake of Covid-19, many more countries are building out virus research facilities, and the barrier to entry for conducting high-risk experiments is dropping. Science is more democratized, and the ability to essentially engineer infectious organisms to make them more infectious and more deadly is out of the box, said Trounce and to stop a future lab leak, Trounce said scientists will first have to create norms that govern safety standards, the kinds of experiments they perform, and openness about their work. Right now, there are no consistent guidelines for working with dangerous pathogens around the world and no incentive to disclose if there’s been an accident. With governments more concerned about managing their reputations, it’s scientists that will need to take the lead in being forthright about their work. Our collective safety is by building openness and transparency and trust in the scientific community, Trounce said.