Coronavirus Task Force's Dr. Deborah Birx Says COVID-19 Likely Moved From Animal to Human, Originated in China

White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said during an appearance on CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday that she doesn't dispute that coronavirus originated in China--but so far evidence is lacking that its spread was the result of a Wuhan laboratory accident.

The physician and immunology researcher joined President Donald Trump Saturday in casting doubt on China's publicly revealed mortality rate and case numbers. But she did not jump to the conclusion made by some in the Trump administration that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory that was testing coronavirus strains in bats. Despite Trump's accusations of mismanagement against the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese government, Birx instead said the only origin theory widely agreed upon by U.S. officials is that it started by moving from an animal to a human.

"Scientifically speaking, could this outbreak just be the result of a lab accident?" Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan asked Birx.

"Any time we have a new virus it's important to figure out its origins and I think we're still a long way from figuring it out," Birx told the host. "It took us decades to figure out HIV and Ebola, it's going to take us a while to really map and trace this particular virus, map it through its experience in humans, and get the scientific evidence of where this virus originated. We know it originated in China, we just don't know specifically how and where."

"It sounds like you're saying it could have been [a Wuhan lab accident]?" Brennan pressed.

"I don't have evidence that it was a laboratory accident," responded Birx. "I also don't know precisely where it originated. So until we have the concrete evidence, which we struggled with in other pandemics and zoonotic events, these are zoonotic events - they come from animals into humans so figuring that out will be really critical as well as figuring out if it could have happened in a lab. Right now, the general consensus is animal-to-human."

The Trump administration said last week that U.S. intelligence is investigating any potential wrongdoing on behalf of the WHO and the Wuhan laboratory, threatening to cut off funding to the international health organization. On Saturday, a vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology spoke out against accusations there was some type of coronavirus cover-up during an appearance on Chinese state television.

"They have no evidence or logic to support their accusations. They are basing it completely on their own speculations," Yuan Zhiming said of allegations over a Wuhan lab leak.

Birx also outlined during her appearance on Fact the Nation a three-part national strategy for testing and tracing coronavirus cases, after she was asked what guidelines are being provided to governors moving beyond social distancing orders.

"The first way is really understanding E.R. visits and the symptoms associated with COVID-19," she said. "And we're tracking and tracing those every day all across the country. The second way is really understanding influenza-like illness and converting that entire surveillance program to monitoring COVID-19, which we'll be able to do in the summer months because we don't have the flu. And the third critical leg with those two is testing. Testing needs to be focused critically in places where you start to see early evidence, because no test is 100 percent specific and 100 percent sensitive."

dr deborah birx coronavirus china
White House Coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said she doesn't dispute that coronavirus originated in China, but so far evidence is lacking that it's spread was the result of a Wuhan laboratory accident. SARAH SILBIGER / Stringer/Getty Images