The US investigation into COVID-19 origins

WASHINGTON (AP) — Once dismissed by most public well being consultants and authorities officers, the speculation that COVID-19 leaked unintentionally from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny underneath a brand new U.S. investigation.

Experts say the 90-day evaluation ordered on May 26 by President Joe Biden will push American intelligence businesses to gather extra data and evaluation what they have already got. Former State Department officers underneath President Donald Trump have publicly pushed for additional investigation into virus origins, as have scientists and the World Health Organization.

Many scientists, together with Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they nonetheless imagine the virus almost definitely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to people. Virus researchers haven’t publicly recognized any key new scientific proof that may make the lab-leak speculation extra doubtless.

Virologists additionally say it’s unlikely that any definitive reply about virus origins might be attainable in 90 days. The work to totally verify origins and pathways of previous viruses — equivalent to the primary SARS or HIV/AIDS — has taken years or a long time.

A have a look at what is thought concerning the U.S. investigation of the virus.


Biden ordered a evaluation of what the White House mentioned was an preliminary discovering resulting in “two likely scenarios,” an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House assertion says two businesses within the 18-member intelligence neighborhood lean towards the speculation of a transmission in nature; one other company leans towards a lab leak.

One doc drawing new consideration is a State Department truth sheet printed within the final days of Trump’s administration. The memo notes that the U.S. believes three researchers at a Wuhan, China, lab sought medical therapy for a respiratory sickness in November 2019. However, the report is just not conclusive: The origin and severity of the staffers’ sickness is just not recognized — and most of the people in China recurrently go to hospitals, not primary-care physicians, for routine care.

The memo additionally pointed to “gain of function” research — which in concept might improve the lethality or transmissibility of a virus — allegedly executed on the Wuhan lab with U.S. backing. However, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has since adamantly denied that the U.S. supported any “gain-of-function” analysis on coronaviruses in Wuhan.

David Feith, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs underneath Trump, mentioned he supported Biden’s name for an enhanced evaluation. “Implicit in the president’s statement is that there is more to analyze and more to collect than has been analyzed or collected to date,” Feith said.

The Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.


The White House statement criticized China for a lack of transparency, echoing previous criticisms by Democrats and Republicans. “The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” the White House mentioned.

The Associated Press has reported on China’s interference within the World Health Organization’s probes of the virus and its fanning of conspiracy theories online. China has also forced journalists to leave the country in recent years and silenced or jailed whistleblowers from Wuhan and elsewhere.

The lack of transparency in China is a significant and familiar challenge. But that does not in itself signal that something in particular is being hidden.

“The problem is when you make that announcement (Biden’s call for investigation) in a highly politicized environment, it makes it even less likely that China will cooperate with efforts to find the origins of the virus,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.


The most compelling argument for investigating the possibility of a lab leak is not any new hard evidence, but rather the fact that another pathway for virus spread has not been 100% confirmed.

“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” said Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada. He pointed to the fact that spillover events – when viruses jump from animals to humans – are common in nature, and that scientists already know of two similar beta coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused epidemics when humans were infected, SARS1 and MERS.

However, the case is not completely closed. “There are probabilities, and there are possibilities,” said Banerjee. “Because nobody has identified a virus that’s 100% identical to SARS-CoV-2 in any animal, there is still room for researchers to ask about other possibilities.”


Confirming with 100% certainty the origin of a virus is often not fast, easy, or always even possible.

For example, scientists never confirmed the origin of smallpox before the disease was eradicated through a global vaccination program.

In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – a disease caused by a beta coronavirus, like the current coronavirus – researchers first identified the virus in February 2003. Later that year, scientists discovered the likely middleman hosts: Himalayan palm civets discovered at live-animal markets in Guangdong, China. But it wasn’t till 2017 that researchers traced the doubtless authentic supply of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.


From a scientific perspective, researchers are always keen to better understand how diseases evolve. From a public health perspective, if a virus has transitioned to being spread mostly by human-to-human contact, discovering its origins is not as essential to strategies for containing the disease.

“Questions of origins and questions of disease control are not the same thing once human-to-human transmission has become common,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in environment and public health at Villanova University.

Republicans have pressed for more inquiries into a possible lab leak as part of a broader effort to blame China and vindicate Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Nearly 600,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, the highest toll of any country.


Many scientists caution that it’s unlikely a 90-day investigation will yield definitive new answers.

“We rarely get a ‘smoking gun,'” mentioned Stephen Morse, a illness researcher at Columbia University. “Even underneath the perfect of circumstances we not often get certainty, simply levels of probability.”

Any findings will doubtless be politically explosive, particularly if new proof involves mild supporting or dismissing the zoonotic switch or lab-leak concept. And a failure to succeed in definitive conclusions, virtually inevitable after a 90-day evaluation, might present grist for Trump supporters and opponents alike, in addition to embolden conspiracy theorists.

Meanwhile consultants just like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Huang suspect China could merely clamp down extra, including one other complication to already tense relations. “This will doubtless make it much more difficult to extract concessions from China to permit one other workforce to go to Wuhan, or have unfettered entry to research there,” he mentioned.

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