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Former Trump CDC chief says he thinks the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan

Medical staff surround a patient at Loma Linda University Medical Center
A COVID-19 patient is treated in the ICU at Loma Linda University Medical Center in December.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A former top U.S. health official says he thinks the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, and began spreading as early as September 2019.

Robert Redfield, who led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, told CNN in a clip aired Friday that he thinks that scenario is more likely than any alternative, including that the virus erupted after transferring from animals to humans or in a live-animal market.

The most likely origin “was from a laboratory — you know, escaped,” said Redfield, who served during former President Trump’s administration. “Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”

Redfield added that he was “not implying any intentionality” or accusing China of purposefully releasing the virus, and that he guesses it “started transmitting somewhere in September, October, in Wuhan.”

Trump frequently assigned blame to China for the pandemic, calling it the “China virus” and even “kung flu,” offensive descriptions that have been criticized as helping to spawn a barrage of attacks on Asian Americans.

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About 68% of the anti-Asian attacks documented during the pandemic were verbal harassment, 21% were shunning and 11% were physical assaults.

Origin remains unclear

The origin of the virus remains unclear and is a matter of dispute. Anthony Fauci, one of President Biden’s top health advisers, said Friday that Redfield’s view isn’t held by a majority of health officials.

The World Health Organization is due to release a report on COVID-19’s origins this month, informed by a team of 17 international scientists. There are four main theories, including that it came from a lab, but research by the scientists involved shows that the virus most likely was transferred to humans after spreading, and adapting, from bats to an intermediary host species. It’s not clear what species that was.

The U.S. has been concerned about a lack of transparency and data in the preparation of that report, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. She declined to say whether Biden had a view on where the virus originated, adding that the report is due soon.

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“They actually delayed the release of that report, which we were encouraged by,” Psaki said. “We’ll have to take a look at it and make sure we have access to the underlying information.” She reiterated a call for an international investigation into the pandemic and “the lack of transparency from the Chinese.”

The WHO research also found no evidence that the virus spread before December 2019, suggesting the first cases probably began no earlier than late November — a more recent timeline than Redfield suggests.

Virus strength

Redfield said the virus’s strength, in how easily it spreads, suggests it was developed in a lab. If it had come from animals, it likely would have taken more time to adapt to spreading among humans, he said.

“I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and — at that moment in time, [once] the virus came to the human — became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission,” Redfield said. “It takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient in human-to-human transmission. I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”

He was asked whether he believes the lab was working to specifically make the virus more efficient. “Let’s just say, I have a coronavirus, and I’m working on it — most of us in the lab are trying to grow virus,” he said. “We try to make it grow better and better and better and better so we can do experiments and figure out about it. That’s the way I put it together.”

Fauci — the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who worked with Redfield but remains in his post — said Redfield was expressing an opinion that isn’t widely shared.

“The alternative explanation, which most public health individuals go by, is that this virus was actually circulating in China, likely in Wuhan, for a month or more before they were clinically recognized at the end of December,” Fauci said at a press briefing Friday. That means “the virus clearly could have adapted itself” during that time.

Awaiting report

The current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, declined to comment at the same press briefing on Friday, saying she didn’t have any information for or against any hypothesis. “We are looking forward to a WHO report that should be coming out soon that examines the origins of this pandemic,” she said.

Discussion of a lab’s potential role in breeding the coronavirus first centered on whether the pathogen was synthetically made or modified, said Stanley Perlman, a University of Iowa virologist who specializes in coronaviruses. That’s probably too complicated to be done deliberately with standard genetic techniques, he said.

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Redfield now seems to have suggested that growing the virus in cells made it better adapted to human tissues and that perhaps such a version escaped from the lab. The problem with this theory, Perlman said, is that culturing viruses in tissues normally makes them less virulent, because they become adapted to an environment that lacks the immune forces — T cells and antibodies — that normally keep invaders under control.

While there are many examples of viruses that have been made less dangerous by growth in human cells, he said, “I can’t think of an example where someone has made a virus more virulent this way.”

John Lauerman contributed to this report.


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