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Why The U.S. Thinks A Lab In Wuhan Needs A Closer Look As A Possible Pandemic Source

May 27, 2021
Originally published on May 28, 2021 6:28 am

Updated May 27, 2021 at 11:21 AM ET

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 said 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, 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 said that "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 lab in Wuhan 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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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right, as we just heard, the idea that the coronavirus could've leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, was dismissed as a conspiracy theory by a lot of scientists a year ago. That has changed now. Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: 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.

MARTIN: We've got Dr. Celine Gounder with us on the line. She's an infectious disease expert in New York City and recently served on the Biden-Harris transition team on their COVID-19 advisory board. Dr. Gounder, thanks for being here.

CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Why do you think the Biden administration and the scientific community are now willing to take the lab leak theory seriously where they weren't before?

GOUNDER: Well, I think Stephen Morris (ph) raised an important point, which is that some of this got conflated with conspiracy theories and China-bashing. But there was another point to make here, which is there was also conflation - confusion between this idea of a lab accident and intentionally engineering something in a lab and then that being accidentally or intentionally released. So, you know, I think what we've realized is that, you know, maybe a lab accident is certainly possible.

And the other thing that raised that concern is that we now know that back in November, 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've been from the flu, could've been from something else. But we don't have enough information on those three cases. And that is something that needs to be investigated.

MARTIN: So speaking of which - I mean, that information about their history. But what other data would scientists need to assess the likelihood of a lab leak?

GOUNDER: 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. You know, and then were there any other illnesses 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, you know, 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.

MARTIN: So can any of that be known without China's cooperation?

GOUNDER: Well, that's the challenge, right? So they have to either cooperate - and we'd have to achieve that through diplomatic means. Or, you know, 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.

MARTIN: So why is the theory that COVID-19 likely came from a natural transmission, from animals to humans, why is it still the dominant one?

GOUNDER: Well, 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 could keep going and going. But all of these have been the result of zoonotic spillover, so spillover of viruses from animals into humans. And, you know, this is what we've seen with prior coronaviruses. So probabilistically, it's far more likely that this would be a spillover event as well.

MARTIN: Do you think it was a mistake not to take the lab leak theory seriously?

GOUNDER: I think we need to investigate every single possibility that is plausible. Even if it's less likely, this needs more investigation. 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.

MARTIN: The president wants urgency on this. But how does putting a 90-day deadline for the intelligence community to get an answer to this potentially affect the result?

GOUNDER: You know, I'm not sure that we're going to be able to get an answer in 90 days. I think, you know, 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...

MARTIN: Yeah.

GOUNDER: ...To see if there was anything circulating previously. So there's a lot of work. I don't know if the 90 days is enough.

MARTIN: Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert in New York. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

GOUNDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.