COVID-19 Wuhan lab theory gets more serious look


Top U.S. public health officials and experts are increasingly lending credibility to the need for a deeper investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

Scientists who previously downplayed or dismissed the hypothesis that the virus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, are now increasingly saying there is a need for further investigation. 

Scientists haven’t discovered definitive proof the virus leaked from a lab. But they also have not found hard evidence that shows the virus started in animals before naturally infecting humans, which is why some now argue an investigation is needed.

In addition, recent reporting from The Wall Street Journal cited a U.S. intelligence report that several researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with flu-like symptoms in November 2019 — just before the coronavirus began infecting people across China and then the world — and that they required hospitalization.

The first confirmed case in Wuhan, according to the Chinese government, was Dec. 8, 2019. 

Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration during the Trump administration, told CNBC on Monday that circumstantial evidence is growing to support the idea of a lab leak.

“The question for a lot of people is going to be, when are too many coincidences too much? When does it seem that there’s too many things suggesting that this could have come out of a lab?” Gottlieb said.  

He added that the evidence did not necessarily point to a lab leak scenario last year, which is when most infectious diseases experts initially dismissed it as a conspiracy.  

“Maybe a year ago that kind of a statement made a lot of sense because that was the more likely scenario,” Gottlieb said. 

“I think the challenge right now is that the side of the ledger that supports the thesis that this came from a zoonotic source, from an animal source, hasn’t budged. And the side of the ledger that suggests this could have come out of a lab has continued to grow,” Gottlieb said.

White House medical adviser and top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, who downplayed the lab leak theory in the past, recently said he thinks an investigation is warranted.

“I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I'm fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China,” Fauci said during a Senate hearing after sparring with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over the virus's origins.

The same day, Fauci told PolitiFact he is “not convinced” COVID-19 developed naturally.

“I am not convinced about that, I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” Fauci said. 

“Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus,” Fauci added.

Peter Hotez, a leading coronavirus vaccinologist and dean of Baylor College of Medicine's National School of Tropical Medicine, said he’s long been in favor of an investigation, even if he doesn't think a lab leak is very likely.

“I think that the deck is stacked in favor of natural origin,” Hotez said. “But I think it is plausible, and I've always thought it's plausible, but I've always said the same thing: We need a thorough outbreak investigation.”

Earlier this month, a group of 18 leading scientists published a letter in the academic journal Science calling for further investigation into the origin of the virus. 

The scientists noted that they were not advocating for one possibility over another but that the lack of evidence called into question any existing hypothesis. 

“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the scientists wrote. 

Jesse Bloom, an associate professor at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center who co-signed the letter, said he is encouraged by the growing consensus for further investigation. 

“Many basic facts about the earliest SARS-CoV-2 cases remain unclear, so of course scientists and experts have different guesses on the relative likelihoods of a lab accident versus a natural zoonosis. But there is a shared view that further careful scientific investigation is needed,” Bloom said in an email.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report issued earlier this year found that the coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans and labeled the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely.” 

But China has been accused of withholding information from the WHO-led team. The White House said it believes that China has “not been transparent” in releasing its findings on the origins of COVID-19, and the World Health Organization was severely limited in its investigation. 

After the release of the report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the lab leak theory needed more investigation.

Some public health experts have said the U.S. will need to lead any investigation because the WHO is hampered by the need for international cooperation, which China is unlikely to give.

On Monday, the White House said it supported an independent investigation, but no action has been taken to date.

Part of the problem is that any investigation is going to be highly politicized in the U.S. 

Republicans in the House and Senate have been pressing the Biden administration for any evidence linking the virus to the Wuhan Virology Institute.

Former President Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were some of the first people to blame a lab leak for the introduction of the virus. However, neither of them ultimately produced any evidence.

Some Republicans have also been strongly hinting that the National Institutes of Health funded research in the Wuhan lab that was ultimately used to create the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Public health officials have vehemently denied this, and outside scientists have noted that even if there was a lab leak, it doesn’t mean the virus was human-made.

After House Republicans on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis used a recent hearing about vaccine manufacturing to call for an investigation into the pandemic's origins, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology oversight subcommittee, said he would hold one.

“The origins of SARS-CoV-2 will be investigated by the House Science Committee investigations and oversight [subcommittee],” Foster said. “I can assure you that our hearings will be a rational discussion among scientists, rather than a blizzard of semi-informed talking points designed for social media.”

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