Long dismissed as a kooky conspiracy theory, the idea that COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, has been gaining increasing momentum in the US.
The US government’s position has shifted to agnosticism in recent weeks, with US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky saying they are open to all possibilities.
“We need to get to the bottom of this and we need a completely transparent process from China, we need the WHO to assist in that matter,” White House senior adviser for COVID-19 Andy Slavitt said on Tuesday.
The demand for more investigation is in stark contrast to the start of the pandemic, when scientists quickly came together around the idea that the virus crossed over from bats via an intermediary animal.
The problem is, this link still has not been found, former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday — and not for want of trying.
Previous coronaviruses that crossed over to humans, SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, were quickly traced back to civets and camels.
“The question for a lot of people is going to be when are too many coincidences too much?” Gottlieb said.
Citing a US intelligence report, the Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported that a trio from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with a seasonal illness in November 2019.
China disclosed the existence of an outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan to the WHO on Dec. 31, 2019.
Beijing dismissed the Journal report as “totally untrue.”
On Tuesday, the US and other countries called for a more in-depth probe into the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins, after an international mission to China earlier this year proved inconclusive.
A long-delayed report by a team of experts dispatched by the WHO to Wuhan and their Chinese counterparts drew no firm conclusions on the origins of the pandemic.
It said that a natural origin was the most probable scenario, and that a theory involving the virus leaking from a laboratory was “extremely unlikely.”
However, after the report was released, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said all theories remained on the table.
In addition, calls from scientists for more transparency are growing.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” a group of researchers from top US universities wrote in a letter published by the journal Science in the middle of this month.
In the US, the hypothesis of a leak of the virus from the Chinese laboratory was previously fueled mainly by former US president Donald Trump and his acolytes, and the matter became mired in the country’s divided politics.
“Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19,” Trump said on Tuesday. “To me it was obvious from the beginning, but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying: ‘He was right.’ Thank you.”
However, many experts remain cautious.
“Many of us feel that it is more likely that this is a natural occurrence, as has happened before,” Fauci said. “But we don’t know 100 percent the answer to that.”
The truth might never be known, Gottlieb said.
Evidence supporting a lab leak would not surface unless there is a whistle-blower or regime change in China.
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