Russia Jumps on Wild Claims COVID Was Created in U.S. Lab

A Russian government official has demanded that Washington be "held accountable" for the COVID-19 pandemic after a pair of university professors said U.S. research organizations had more to answer for.

Since the early days of the pandemic in 2020 there has been much discussion over how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, came into existence.

World Health Organization (WHO) researchers sent to Wuhan, China, to investigate the first known outbreak concluded that although more research was needed, a natural spillover to humans from animals was the most likely outcome and considered a lab leak scenario to be "extremely unlikely."

Microscope in lab
A stock photo depicts a scientist looking through a microscope wearing protective gloves. The origins of COVID are still unknown, though many researchers say a natural spillover from animals was most likely. Kkolosov/Getty

At the time the lab leak scenario was perhaps more of a fringe idea and one that carried with it an air of conspiracy theory. Since then, calls for investigation into the origins of COVID, including a lab leak, have come from the U.S. president himself and the possibility has not been written off, though it's sparked animosity between scientists who disagree on the likelihood of the theory as well as between countries who are keen to offload blame.

Proponents of the lab leak theory argue that it is no coincidence that some labs—notably those in Wuhan—had been working on engineering coronaviruses in the years prior to the pandemic.

In May, two Columbia University professors published an opinion article in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they argue that animal spillover and a "research-related incident" are "the two main hypotheses" regarding the origin of COVID and that "there is much important information that can be gleaned from U.S.-based research institutions, information not yet made available for independent, transparent, and scientific scrutiny."

Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor, and Neil Harrison, a professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology, went on to state that "much of the work on SARS-like coronaviruses performed in Wuhan [before the pandemic] was part of an active and highly collaborative U.S.–China scientific research program funded by the U.S. government" and that "it is still not clear whether the U.S. intelligence community (IC) investigated these U.S.-supported and U.S.-based activities. If it did, it has yet to make any of its findings available to the U.S. scientific community for independent and transparent analysis and assessment."

More recently, Sachs went further. Speaking in a discussion at the Gate Center research group in Madrid last month, Sachs said: "I'm pretty convinced it came out of a U.S. lab of biotechnology, not out of nature after two years of intensive work on this. So it's a blunder, in my view, of biotech, not an accident of a natural spillover.

"We don't know for sure, I should be absolutely clear, but there's enough evidence that it should be looked into and it's not being investigated," he said, without elaborating on the nature or substance of said evidence.

However, responding to a Newsweek request for comment, Sachs provided some additional insight into his thinking.

"The basic point is the US-backed and US-funded research in the US and partners in China was to perform the very kind of experiments that may have produced SARS-CoV-2," he wrote in an email.

"Indeed, in my view, that is the most likely inference from various pieces of evidence. SARS-CoV-2 is a SARS-like CoV (coronavirus) that has a Furin Cleavage Site (FCS). The US team backed by NIH was intent on introducing an FCS into a large number of previously unreported SARS-CoVs.

"My personal best guess is that SARS-CoV-2 was thereby created and that it accidentally escaped from a laboratory, perhaps the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or perhaps elsewhere.

"NIH has yet not told us what it knew when. The ongoing NIH secrecy and indeed misdirection is a huge and ongoing problem," he concluded.

However, as the U.S. Intelligence Council has previously noted, and past research has suggested, instances have been observed in which furin cleavage sites—a part of SARS-CoV-2 that enhances infection—have been identified in naturally-occurring coronaviruses in the past, and that a coronavirus that was 96.2 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered in a bat in 2013.

While the research into and debate around this particular aspect of SARS-CoV-2 continues, it is neither a definitive indicator of lab origins of the virus, nor is it a new piece of information in the conversation about Covid origins, as some outlets and commentators have purported.

It is also worth noting that Sachs' own credibility and links to China, where he holds an advisory role at Beijing' Tsinghua University, have been questioned in the light of his efforts to find the origins of the virus, with some conservative outlets branding him "China's apologist in chief."

And regardless of his genuine or purported affiliations, it is worth emphasizing that Sachs' primary expertise lie in the fields of economics and policy, rather than virology.

Newsweek has contacted the U.S. Department of State for comment.

Shortly after videos of Sachs' comments spread online, Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma in Russia, pounced on the claim to criticize the U.S. and demand compensation.

In a Telegram post on Wednesday this week, Volodin wrote, translated from Russian: "Millions of sick and dead people, the global economic crisis, a drop in people's living standards are the consequences of COVID-19 for which Washington needs to be held accountable.

"To all states affected by the pandemic, the United States is obliged to compensate for the losses incurred."

It should be noted that Russian officials and outlets have been spreading debunked claims and propaganda about supposed U.S. "biolabs" in Ukraine since invading its neighboring country.

It's also not the first time that COVID origins accusations have been levelled at Washington. China, which itself has been a target of such accusations, has in turn pushed its own theories.

Several times last year, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested that the Fort Detrick military base in the U.S. should be investigated as part of the WHO's COVID investigations. China's state-owned Global Times newspaper has also made similar claims.

Update 07/07/22, 5:16 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from Jeffrey Sachs.