The Question of the Origins of COVID-19 and the Ends of Science

J Bioeth Inq. 2023 Sep 11. doi: 10.1007/s11673-023-10303-1. Online ahead of print.


Intense public interest in scientific claims about COVID-19, concerning its origins, modes of spread, evolution, and preventive and therapeutic strategies, has focused attention on the values to which scientists are assumed to be committed and the relationship between science and other public discourses. A much discussed claim, which has stimulated several inquiries and generated far-reaching political and economic consequences, has been that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and then, either inadvertently or otherwise, released to the public by a laboratory worker. This has been pursued despite a clear refutation, through comprehensive genomic analysis, of the hypothesis that the virus was deliberately engineered and the failure of detailed investigations to identify any evidence in support of a laboratory leak. At the same time a substantial, established body of knowledge about the many factors underlying the emergence of novel zoonotic diseases has been largely ignored-including climate change and other mechanisms of environmental destruction, tourism, patterns of trade, and cultural influences. The existence and conduct of these debates have raised questions about the vulnerability of science to manipulation for political purposes. Scientific discourses are vulnerable because: (i) claims can be made with no more than probabilistic force; (ii) alleged "facts" are always subject to interpretation, which depends on social, ethical, and epistemological assumptions; and (iii) science and scientists are not inherently committed to any single set of values and historically have served diverse, and sometimes perverse, social and political interests. In the face of this complexity, the COVID-19 experience highlights the need for processes of ethical scrutiny of the scientific enterprise and its strategic deployment. To ensure reliability of truth claims and protection from corrupting influences robust ethical discourses are required that are independent of, and at times even contrary to, those of science itself.

Keywords: COVID-19; Origins hypotheses; Politics; SARS-CoV-2.