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The Guardian view on how Covid began: look to the future | Editorial

The row over whether the pandemic started with a lab leak is growing. But the most important question is what we do now

We may never know for certain how a disease that brought the world to a standstill and has killed almost 7 million people emerged. While many experts believe that Covid-19 arose through human contact with infected animals, most likely via a wet market in Wuhan, China, a significant number believe it probably escaped from the city’s Institute of Virology. Others retain an open mind. But politics has turbocharged a scientific question. Donald Trump hyped the lab leak theory without evidence; yet some scientists fear that, in the haste to challenge xenophobic buck-passing that was fuelling anti-Asian hate crime, others may have been too quick to dismiss entirely a genuine possibility.

The simmering, rancorous debate began heating up again late last month when it emerged that the US Department of Energy had concluded, though with “low confidence”, that a lab escape was probably to blame. The FBI agrees, while four other US agencies blame natural spillover and two – including the CIA – remain undecided. Then, a new analysis of gene sequences taken from swabs from the market showed that some Covid-positive samples were rich in DNA from raccoon dogs, bolstering the case that it began through infected animals sold at the site. As the row gathers pace, Joe Biden has ordered the release of intelligence on the pandemic’s origins.

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