Thanks Clark for the link. It is indeed a well researched and well written essay. Nicholson Baker is an essayist and novelist and not a scientist. The scientific view is here expressed by some experts in the field, but as pointed out by Baker, they are those involved in some of the gain-of-function research and may therefore underplay the risk. It is certainly something of great importance for science and also ethicists to determine because of the matter of principle of unleashing forces beyond our control. From the above quoted study:
In the midst of the global COVID-19 public-health emergency, it is reasonable to wonder why the origins of the pandemic matter. Detailed understanding of how an animal virus jumped species boundaries to infect humans so productively will help in the prevention of future zoonotic events. For example, if SARS-CoV-2 pre-adapted in another animal species, then there is the risk of future re-emergence events. In contrast, if the adaptive process occurred in humans, then even if repeated zoonotic transfers occur, they are unlikely to take off without the same series of mutations. In addition, identifying the closest viral relatives of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in animals will greatly assist studies of viral function. Indeed, the availability of the RaTG13 bat sequence helped reveal key RBD mutations and the polybasic cleavage site.
The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.
More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another. Obtaining related viral sequences from animal sources would be the most definitive way of revealing viral origins. For example, a future observation of an intermediate or fully formed polybasic cleavage site in a SARS-CoV-2-like virus from animals would lend even further support to the natural-selection hypotheses. It would also be helpful to obtain more genetic and functional data about SARS-CoV-2, including animal studies. The identification of a potential intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2, as well as sequencing of the virus from very early cases, would similarly be highly informative. Irrespective of the exact mechanisms by which SARS-CoV-2 originated via natural selection, the ongoing surveillance of pneumonia in humans and other animals is clearly of utmost importance.