Why a lab in Wuhan is worth a closer look as a possible source of the pandemic

A series of industrial buildings tucked between mountains.
This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (C) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on May 13, 2020. – Opened in 2018, the P4 lab, which is part of the greater Wuhan Institute of Virology and conducts research on the world’s most dangerous diseases, has been accused by top US officials of being the source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The idea that the coronavirus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China — instead of jumping from animals to humans — was dismissed as a conspiracy theory by many scientists a year ago. That has changed now.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday: “The historical basis for pandemics evolving naturally from an animal reservoir is extremely strong. And it’s for that reason that we felt that something similar like this has a much higher likelihood. No one knows, not even I, 100% at this point, which is the reason why we are in favor of further investigation.”

Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease expert who served on the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 advisory board, agrees.

Even if the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the less likely origin of the outbreak, “this needs more investigation,” she says Thursday in an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin on Morning Edition. “And saying that this needs more investigation doesn’t mean the virus leaked from a lab. But we need to investigate that and figure that out because it really does have implications for how we’ll prevent the next pandemic.”

On Wednesday, President Biden said he has asked the U.S. intelligence community to push to get closer to a “definitive conclusion” on how the pandemic started. Gounder says “there’s a lot of work” to be done on the investigation and a report may take longer than the 90-day deadline Biden set.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

On why the Biden administration and the scientific community are now willing to take the lab leak theory seriously

Some of this got conflated with conspiracy theories and China-bashing. But there was also a conflation, confusion between this idea of a lab accident and intentionally engineering something in the lab and then that being accidentally or intentionally released. So I think what we’ve realized is that maybe a lab accident is certainly possible.

And the other thing that raised that concern is that we now know that back in November [2019], there were three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who were working on coronaviruses and who were hospitalized with symptoms that could have been from COVID, could have been from the flu, could have been from something else. But we don’t have enough information on those three cases, and that is something that needs to be investigated.

On what information scientists need to assess the likelihood of a lab leak

Well, you would really want to be going through the safety protocols in the lab. You would want to be going through their lab records. What exactly were the experiments that they were doing? You know, every scientist keeps very careful, detailed logs of their work. And then were there any other illnesses among amongst the group? We have no knowledge of what testing was done on those three sick researchers. We don’t know what laboratory testing, what radiology scans were done. Were any specimens saved that you could go back and see, was this COVID or was this something else? So there’s really a lot that would need to be done to further suss this out.

On whether information about the Wuhan lab can be learned without China’s cooperation

That’s the challenge, right? So they have to either cooperate and we’d have to achieve that through diplomatic means or our intelligence community may have other means of trying to get to that information. But we really cannot get to a definitive answer without that information.

On why natural transmission from animals to humans is still the dominant theory for the origins of COVID-19

This is really 99% of the time the source of emerging infectious diseases, whether you talk about HIV or Zika or Ebola, the original SARS, MERS. I mean, you keep going and going. But all of these have been the result of zoonotic spillovers — so, spillover of viruses from animals into humans. And this is what we’ve seen with the prior coronaviruses so probabilistically, it’s far more likely that this would be a spillover event as well.

On whether President Biden has given the intelligence community enough time to investigate how the pandemic started

I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to get an answer in 90 days. I think if you look at some of the other things that would need to be done to also assess a potential spillover, that would mean, for example, testing blood bank samples that would go back to before December, November of 2019 to see if there was anything circulating previously. So there’s a lot of work. I don’t know if 90 days is enough.

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