By Paula Ebben

CAMBRIDGE (CBS) — When we all went in to lockdown back in March of 2020, an MIT scientist began studying exactly how the coronavirus pandemic began, and decided that a lab accident in Wuhan, China had to be considered one plausible explanation.

Over the last 18 months, Alina Chan has grown a huge following on Twitter where she tweeted her theories and research – and has been attacked by one camp and called a hero by another. Now, she’s written a new book on what she says has been an “exhausting journey.”

“This all began because I wanted to ask the question: could this have come from nature or from a lab? Somehow just raising the lab hypothesis offended a whole bunch of people, powerful people, but behind the scenes, in private I have actually received a great deal of support from other scientists,” MIT Broad Institute Researcher Alina Chan said.

In fact, after being dismissed as a conspiracy theory at the start of the pandemic, those questions about the possibility of a lab leak have even started to seep in to popular culture. Jon Stewart joked on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:” “How did this happen? I don’t know maybe a pangolin kissed a turtle,” he said.

But Alina Chan warns this is no laughing matter. A postdoctoral researcher in gene therapy at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (but not a virologist), she co-authored the new book “Viral,” and argues that searching for the origin of COVID-19 is vital to preventing future pandemics.”

Viral By Alina Chan and Matt Ridley (WBZ-TV)

“If we don’t say anything, this will happen again and again,” Chan said.

The book makes the case for both possibilities: natural transfer of the virus from bats to mammals and then to humans, or from some sort of lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that spread to the community. She adds this is not about assigning blame.

“We make the strongest argument possible for each origin,” she explained. “And we let the reader decide, so we don’t know the answer.”

Some have accused Chan of pushing the lab origin theory when there is no evidence to support that claim. “There is no evidence whatsoever for a natural origin or a lab origin so all of the existing evidence is circumstantial. Even for natural origin, it’s completely circumstantial,” Chan explained.

So no, there is no hard evidence yet, but as another leading infectious disease expert, Dr. David Relman of Stanford University, told CBS News – everything is on the table: “The lab leak hypotheses are absolutely legitimate,” Dr. Relman said. “They are plausible.”

Despite personal and professional attacks online questioning her qualifications, Chan insists she won’t be deterred: “I actually do have a very strong background in handling viruses and engineering them. I have many years of experience in bioengineering, genetic engineering.”

And she’s not sorry to have started asking questions. “I don’t regret pushing so hard because the scientific community really needs to step up and rebuild public trust.”

Chan said the book catches people up on what’s happened so far – there has been a lot of confusion, but she points out that no safety changes have been made to the wildlife trade or lab safety. So after millions have died and had their lives turned upside down, we are in the exact same place we were two years ago before anyone ever realized what coronavirus was.

Paula Ebben