Leaders of the White House’s COVID-19 task force refused to completely discount a popularly held theory that the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, MD, said “we don’t know 100%” where the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 came from.
“We feel strongly, all of us, that we should continue with the investigation and go to the next phase of the investigation that the [World Health Organization] has done,” said Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Biden.
White House senior advisor for COVID-19 response, Andy Slavitt added, “we need a completely transparent process from China.”
“We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now. We need to get to the bottom of this whatever the answer may be, and that’s a critical priority for us,” he said.
Theories that SARS-CoV-2 may have escaped from a lab have gained more credence recently. A Wall Street Journal report citing U.S. intelligence found that three researchers from the Wuhan lab were sick enough to seek hospital care in November 2019 for symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or seasonal illness.
But Tuesday’s comments were among the first and strongest comments coming from members of the White House task force about the origin of the virus. At the briefing, members were asked about the possibility the virus “escaped from a lab.”
“Many of us feel that it is more likely that this is a natural occurrence,” Fauci said, citing the theory that the virus went from an animal reservoir to a human. He referred to the SARS epidemic earlier this century as precedent.
Authorities in China and many public health experts have long claimed the virus likely originated in a Wuhan wet market or similar environment, possibly spreading from bats to other species before jumping to humans.
Other public health officials, experts, and politicians have cited the possibility of a lab leak, since the Chinese government was studying coronaviruses. A number of researchers recently penned a letter to Science, calling for “greater clarity” into the source of the pandemic.
China has prevented the WHO from conducting thorough, independent investigations of the virus’ origin, dating back at least to the fall. WHO investigators have been allowed inside the country to work with scientists and others approved by China.
Robert Redfield, MD, the former CDC director under President Trump, told CNN in late March that he believed the virus was spreading in Wuhan as early as September or October 2019. Redfield said the “most likely etiology” of the pathogen was that it had “escaped” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was running experiments with bat coronaviruses.
During that same CNN program, Fauci said of China, “they have not been transparent in the past.”
Last Updated May 25, 2021