Biden Joins the COVID Lab-Leak Debate

This transmission-electron-microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Photo: IMAGE POINT FR - LPN/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty

Developments in the debate about the lab-leak theory regarding the origins of COVID-19 have accelerated rapidly, with President Biden saying on Wednesday he’s ordered U.S. intelligence to “redouble their efforts” to try and solve the mystery.

There continues to be no evidence at all for the conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was developed as some kind of bioweapon, and most scientists believe that the majority of available evidence indicates the virus jumped from animal to human. But there is a growing consensus that the evidence does not completely rule out the possibility that the virus may have started in animals, was then studied in a lab, and somehow accidentally escaped and infected humans.

In a statement released Wednesday, Biden said that the U.S. intelligence community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” for the origins of COVID-19, following a report on the matter: “Human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.” Neither scenario is considered more likely than the other, Biden said, but he wants to try and reach a definitive conclusion and has asked the intelligence community to dig deeper and report back in 90 days. “As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said.

Biden’s statement came less than two weeks after a group of prominent scientists published an open letter in Science calling for more investigation into the topic, noting that the theory that the novel coronavirus may have accidentally escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, had not received “balanced consideration” in earlier investigations.

Not long after that letter, Dr. Anthony Fauci made waves with a comment on the debate. During a May 11 interview, PolitiFact’s Katie Sanders asked Fauci if he was “still confident that [COVID-19] developed naturally,” to which Fauci replied that, “No, actually, I’m not convinced of that — I think that we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we find out, to the best of our ability, exactly what happened … I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”

The comment was framed by some as a “bombshell” admission, but while Fauci has repeatedly pointed to evidence that is likely zoonotic in origin and downplayed the so-called lab-leak theory, he had made a similar comment that same week in a Senate hearing and has generally always supported further research into the virus’s origins, since there is still no definitive evidence about precisely where it came from. At a White House briefing this week, Fauci said he believes it’s most likely the virus originated from a “natural occurrence” but a deeper probe was warranted because “we don’t know 100 percent what the origin is.”

Then on Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported previously undisclosed details from a U.S. intelligence report, which said that a few researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the laboratory at the center of the lab-leak hypothesis, fell ill in the fall of 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” The intelligence report, which remains unverified and which China has denied, said that three WIV researchers sought treatment at a hospital for their symptoms in November 2019, which is when many scientists believe the coronavirus likely began circulating among humans. As the Journal notes, however, it’s not clear how credible this intelligence is:

Current and former officials familiar with the intelligence about the lab researchers expressed differing views about the strength of the supporting evidence for the assessment. One person said that it was provided by an international partner and was potentially significant but still in need of further investigation and additional corroboration.

Another person described the intelligence as stronger. “The information that we had coming from the various sources was of exquisite quality. It was very precise. What it didn’t tell you was exactly why they got sick,” he said, referring to the researchers.

CNN later added:

Importantly, the intelligence community still does not know what the researchers were actually sick with, said the people briefed, and continues to have low confidence in its assessments of the virus’ precise origins beyond the fact that it came from China. “At the end of the day, there is still nothing definitive,” said one of the people who has seen the intelligence … The current intelligence reinforces the belief that the virus most likely originated naturally, from animal-human contact, the sources said. But that does not preclude the possibility that the virus was the result of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where coronavirus research was being conducted on bats.

In other words, if WIV researchers really were sick, and sick enough to visit a hospital, they may have just had a common respiratory illness. While the intelligence report may add more fuel to the lab-leak-theory debate, it is not conclusive evidence of anything.

On Monday, the Journal published a follow-up report highlighting how access has been restricted to the mine in Southwest China where six miners, three of whom later died, came down with a mysterious illness in 2012 after clearing bat guano inside. In the aftermath, Chinese scientists from the WIV collected samples from bats in the mine and later identified several coronaviruses that were new to science. As Nicholson Baker explored at length in his New York cover story about the lab-leak hypothesis, one of those coronaviruses is the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2.

The Journal reported:

Chinese authorities have obstructed independent efforts to investigate the mine, setting up a checkpoint nearby where unidentified men stopped several foreign journalists in recent weeks, on one occasion warning there were wild elephants ahead. A Journal reporter reached the mine by mountain bike but was later detained and questioned for about five hours by police, who deleted a cellphone photograph of the mine. Villagers told the reporter that local officials had warned them not to discuss the mine with outsiders. There was no sign of nearby villages being evacuated or any recent research activity at the mine. It was so overgrown that its entrance appeared to be inaccessible.

Regarding the WHO investigation, which recently concluded, to some criticism, that SARS-CoV-2 did not escape from a lab, the Journal added:

Some scientists question why the WHO-led team, which has sought to investigate clues to the pandemic’s origins in other countries such as Italy, hasn’t been able to arrange antibody tests and surveys of people and animals around the overgrown mine that held the virus most closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

Speaking at a WHO meeting on Tuesday, U.S. health secretary Xavier Becerra called for a “transparent, science-based” international follow-up investigation on the pandemic’s origin. In a video message, he said experts should be given “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”

During a CNBC interview on Monday, former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb underlined the growing circumstantial evidence that supports the lab-leak hypothesis:

“People a year ago who said this probably came from nature, it’s really unlikely it came from a lab, maybe a year ago that kind of a statement made a lot of sense because that was the more likely scenario,” Gottlieb [said in the interview.] “But we haven’t found the true source of this virus.”

Scientists still haven’t discovered definitive proof that the virus came from an animal, he said. With other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, researchers were able to identify the animal those diseases emerged from at this point in those outbreaks. “It’s not for lack of trying; there has been an exhaustive search,” Gottlieb said …

“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 also noted, as many others have, that the world may never know for sure either way. In the meantime, the calls for more investigation into the coronavirus’s origins, and more transparency from China, will likely continue to grow.

Biden Joins the COVID Lab-Leak-Theory Debate