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Former CDC chief Redfield urged to step aside as Hogan adviser after Wuhan lab comments

Robert Redfield speaks at a news conference on March 2 in Annapolis with Gov. Larry Hogan at his side.
Robert Redfield speaks at a news conference on March 2 in Annapolis with Gov. Larry Hogan at his side. (Brian Witte/AP)
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Maryland lawmakers on Friday called on former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Robert Redfield to step down as a medical adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan, hours after an interview aired in which Redfield said he believed the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Redfield said his “personal opinion” was that it’s unlikely one of the most infectious viruses for humans leaped from bats to people at a wet market, and it seemed more plausible to him the virus was developed in a laboratory in China.

While there is no scientific consensus on how the deadly virus originated, the World Health Organization has called the laboratory theory “highly unlikely.”

Redfield’s endorsement of the so-called “lab-leak” theory of the virus’s origin on CNN outraged several state lawmakers, who saw his comments as exacerbating
anti-Asian sentiment that has been on the rise since the United States saw its first cases.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Redfield should resign from the advisory role he took with the Hogan administrationgovernor earlier this month.

“Dr. Redfield’s comments were inappropriate, unacceptable and beyond unfortunate,” Ferguson said. “A comment like this on national news is just not okay, and I am hopeful that the governor will ask Dr. Redfield to either retract or walk back that statement or clarify that statement. And if not, I hope the governor does ask him to step away.”

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Two Asian American state senators said Redfield’s comments “put a big bull’s eye” on people of Asian descent.

“Words matter,” said Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery). “When persons in high office. . . . make statements like this . . . it creates a toxic, dangerous and volatile climate that may subject us to violent attacks and crimes.”

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) said Redfield’s comments are the type of “divisive rhetoric” that has led to an increase in hate crimes against Asians both across the country.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said the governor, who has been outspoken about anti-Asian bias and violence, would not ask Redfield to step down over his remarks.

Ricci said that the governor disagrees with the assertion that Redfield’s comments fuel anti-Asian sentiment, given that the former CDC director Redfield noted he was not casting blame and was speaking in his capacity as an expert in viruses.

Last week’s killings at three Asian-owned businesses in the Atlanta area unleashed a national conversation about violence against Asians. Hogan (R), whose wife Yumi Hogan is a Korean immigrant, has stepped to the fore of the conversation.

The former CDC director has appeared alongside Hogan at news conferences, including praising and praised the governor’s March 9 decision to lift all capacity limits at most businesses while keeping a mask mandate in place.

Even before the Atlanta shootings, Hogan had highlighted the rise in anti-Asian sentiment over the past year. This week, he stepped up patrols near Asian businesses in Maryland. He and his family have spoken about friends and relatives who have been targeted by racial aggression over the last year.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) joined Ferguson in criticizing Redfield’s remarks. “I would hope that the Administration would focus on getting shots in people’s arms and our economy reopened — not spreading conspiracy theories that fuel hate,” she said in a statement.

Ricci did not answer a question about whether the governor shared Redfield’s view about the origin of the coronavirus, instead saying in a statement: “As Dr. Redfield said, this is his opinion as a professional. Where or when or how the pandemic started has nothing to do with how we’re dealing with it now, which of course is our focus.”

During an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, Redfield noted he’s spent his life in virology, and he thinks the virus began circulating in Wuhan in September or October of 2019 after accidentally infecting a lab worker.

“That is not implying any intentionality. It is my opinion,” Redfield said. “I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in time the virus came to the human, became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human to human transmission … I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”

Rachel Chason contributed to this report.

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