Did Covid-19 develop naturally? Dr Anthony Fauci 'not convinced', seeks probe into 'what went on in China'
'We should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened', said Dr Fauci
Three researchers from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) sought hospital treatment in November 2019, months before China announced the Covid-19 pandemic, citing a previously undisclosed US intelligence survey, reported The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, May 23
The study, according to the newspaper, could add weight to calls for a wider investigation into whether the Covid-19 virus escaped from the laboratory because it provides new information on the number of researchers infected, the timing of their illnesses, and their hospital visits. The report was released on the eve of a meeting of the World Health Organization's decision-making body, which is expected to address the next steps of the Covid-19 investigation.
Did Covid-19 develop naturally?
Several researchers at the facility, a center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens, got sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness,” according to a State Department fact sheet released during the final days of the Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Current and former officials with knowledge of the lab researchers' intelligence have expressed conflicting opinions on the strength of the supporting evidence for the evaluation. It was supported by an international partner, according to one source, and was potentially relevant, but needed further analysis and confirmation.
'The info didn’t tell you exactly why they got sick'
The intelligence was described as "stronger" by another individual. “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 scientists. An unnamed person said it needed '"further investigation and additional corroboration."
Following a visit to the virology institute in February, a WHO-led team concluded that a lab leak was highly unlikely, according to China's foreign ministry on Sunday. "The US continues to hype the lab leak hypothesis," the ministry said in response to the Journal's request for comment. "Is it actually concerned about tracing the source or trying to divert attention?" The Trump administration had earlier said it suspected the virus may have escaped from a Chinese lab, which Beijing denies.
According to one of the team's investigators, China declined to send raw data on early Covid-19 cases to the WHO-led team investigating the pandemic's roots, Reuters reported in February, potentially complicating attempts to understand how the epidemic started.
The Biden administration continues to have "serious questions about the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins within the Peoples Republic of China," according to a National Security Council spokeswoman, the Daily Mail reported. "We're not going to make pronouncements that prejudge an ongoing WHO study into the source of SARS-CoV-2, but we've been clear that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts," she said.
Fauci 'not convinced'
Dr Anthony Fauci said earlier on Sunday that he is "not convinced" that Covid-19 formed spontaneously and called for an open investigation into its origins as China is under the pressure to provide clarity on the matter. During a PolitiFact event on May 11 called United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking, Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, demonstrated his scepticism.
"There's a lot of cloudiness around the origins of Covid-19 still, so I wanted to ask, are you still confident that it developed naturally?" PolitiFact managing editor Katie Sanders asked 'America's Doctor'. "No actually,' he said in response. "I am not convinced about that, I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened."
Did US fund a 'gain-of-function' study?
"Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out," he said, adding: "So, you know, that's the reason why I said I'm perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus." Fauci's appearance at the event came just hours after a tense Senate hearing in which he was questioned on the same topic.
During a Senate hearing earlier this month, Sen Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Fauci got into a heated argument, with Paul accusing the US of potentially funding 'gain-of-function' study bats that might have gone wrong. "This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH… Dr Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?' asked Paul. Fauci shot back, saying: "Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect that the NIH has not never and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."
A lab escape
"Could you rule out a laboratory escape? The answer in this case is probably not. Will you in front of this group categorically say that the Covid-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory," Paul asked Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done and I'm fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China," Fauci responded. He added: "I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from. But again, we have not funded gain of function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn't happen.'"
While the administration has faulted it as incomplete, a World Health Organization report with Chinese cooperation called a 'zoonotic transmission' from animals to humans 'likely to very likely' as the cause.