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Former CDC chief says he thinks virus came from Wuhan lab

Josh Wingrove
Bloomberg

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.

Dr. Robert Redfield, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference on Operation Warp Speed and COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Washington.

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The most likely origin “was from a laboratory – you know, escaped,” said Redfield, who served during former President Donald 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 it, and that he guesses the virus “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,” descriptions that have been criticized as helping to spawn a barrage of attacks on Asian Americans.

The origin of the virus remains unclear and is a matter of dispute. Anthony Fauci, one of President Joe 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 its 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 the most likely is that the virus was transferred to humans after spreading, and adapting, from bats to an intermediary host species. It’s not clear what species that was.

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 is suggesting.

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

“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.

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.