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Top U.S. health official calls for follow-up investigation into pandemic’s origins

The theory that the virus came from a Wuhan lab has gained traction amid criticism of an international probe and reports that several researchers were ill in November 2019 — weeks before the virus was officially identified

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, on May 25 called for further investigation of the origin of the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)
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The United States’ top health official called Tuesday for a swift follow-up investigation into the coronavirus’s origins amid renewed questions about whether the virus jumped from an animal host into humans in a naturally occurring event or escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told an annual ministerial meeting of the World Health Organization that international experts should be given “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”

Becerra’s remarks, which were prerecorded, signaled that the Biden administration would continue to press the WHO to expand its investigation to determine the virus’s origins.

As the coronavirus ravaged the United States and much of the world last year, an early theory was that it emerged from a market in Wuhan that sold meat from wild animals raised in captivity and then swiftly spread across the globe. Experts in viral genome evolution determined that it almost certainly was not engineered as a bioweapon because it has several naturally occurring features and is closely related to a 2014 coronavirus that came from a bat in a cave in China. But they also said they could not rule out that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research lab that studies coronaviruses.

While the lab leak theory was initially dismissed as unlikely, recent reports about the hospitalization of Wuhan lab researchers in November 2019 — weeks before the virus was identified in that city — have given it new traction. A joint team of scientists from China and elsewhere, which was convened by the WHO, concluded in late March that a lab leak was extremely unlikely after visiting the Wuhan facility, but some international scientists and researchers said the findings were tainted by politics and called for further investigation.

Scientists’ default assumption has been that this was a naturally occurring event since hundreds of zoonotic viruses jump from animals to humans and cause all manner of diseases. Many scientists who study zoonotic diseases say that’s still the more likely scenario. But in part because they have not yet identified the animal that may have spread the virus to humans, the Wuhan lab theory has gained more credibility.

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease expert, said he believes it’s most likely the virus originated from a “natural occurrence.” But he said a deeper probe is warranted.

“Because we don’t know 100 percent what the origin is, it’s imperative that we look and we do an investigation,” Fauci said.

At that same briefing, Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser on the coronavirus response, expressed frustration at barriers imposed on international scientists by the Chinese government.

“It is our position that 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. We don’t feel like we have that now,” Slavitt said. “That’s a critical priority for us.”

The United Nations agency had released a joint report with Chinese scientists in March after a WHO-led mission spent four weeks in Wuhan. But the United States and other nations raised concerns about the limits placed on that mission and called on China to be more transparent. The United States and other nations voiced concern that “the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

The comments from Biden officials on Tuesday reiterate the administration’s stance, but it remains unclear whether or how they might exert pressure on China to be more transparent.

The Biden administration has not retracted a statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, released during the Trump administration, that said the intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.” The statement noted intelligence agencies would continue to try “to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals, or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

The Trump administration also sought answers on the virus’s origins, but some officials went further, suggesting China intentionally released or engineered the virus. Trump’s former trade adviser, Peter Navarro, for instance, accused China of engineering the virus as a bioweapon.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, renewing interest in the lab origin theory. The newspaper cited a U.S. intelligence report as the source and noted that one person said the information came from an “international partner,” who described it as potentially significant but needing further corroboration.

That echoed an earlier report from the State Department, which in the final days of the Trump administration, said “the U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] became sick in autumn 2019.” The statement did not say precisely when the workers allegedly fell ill, or how many became sick, but noted that their symptoms emerged “before the first identified case of the outbreak” and were “consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

A former U.S. official familiar with the intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose the information, said the U.S. government was confident the workers became sick but couldn’t say they suffered from covid-19.

The debate over whether the virus originated in a lab accident has been muddied by conspiracy theories that have sought to draw a link between Fauci, the National Institutes of Health and the Wuhan Institute of Virology — an issue that came up Tuesday at an NIH appropriations hearing on Capitol Hill.

That theory focuses on a $3.7 million NIH grant to a New York-based research nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was awarded a subgrant under that contract, prompting conspiracy theorists to allege that Fauci, an NIH official, was somehow tied to the emergence of the coronavirus.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) held up a copy of the Wall Street Journal during the hearing, referring to its recent story about the Wuhan lab workers who became sick. Harris asked NIH Director Francis Collins whether it was correct that $600,000 of the $3.7 million given to EcoHealth Alliance was directed to the Wuhan facility. Collins said that was accurate.

Harris also asked whether the agency knew if research that artificially enhances a pathogen’s contagiousness, known as “gain of function,” had been conducted there. “They were not approved by NIH to do gain-of-function research,” Collins said.

Fauci described the NIH-funded research as a “modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists” following the SARS scare of 2002 and 2003. That virus “unquestionably” went from a bat to an intermediate host and started an epidemic among humans, he said at the hearing.

“You’ve got to go where the action is” to study viruses like these, Fauci said. “You don’t want to study bats in Fairfax County, Va., to find out what the animal-human interface is that might lead to a jumping of species.” The $600,000 was used to fund surveillance for coronaviruses in bats, Fauci said.

Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.