Scientists Who Doubt Wuhan Lab Theory Still Back Natural Occurrence After Renewed Calls to Probe COVID Origin

Scientists are standing by an analysis they published in the earliest months of the pandemic that found it was caused by a naturally occurring virus, a hypothesis that some are calling into question.

When the analysis was published in March 2020 in the journal Nature, there were only about 320,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world. That number has since grown to more than 167 million. While increased knowledge about the virus has changed countries' responses to the outbreak, it hasn't altered the co-authors' belief that a laboratory accident or purposeful manipulation didn't cause the pandemic.

"The only change since we wrote our manuscript on the proximal origins of SARS-CoV-2 is that I now consider any of the lab leak hypotheses to be extremely unlikely," Robert Garry, a professor at Tulane University and co-author of the article, told Newsweek.

The theory that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is gaining traction, and Republican legislators are calling for an independent probe into the Chinese lab. Supporters often back up the hypothesis with criticism of Chinese censorship and an unwillingness to be transparent. They also point out that Wuhan, where the first case was identified, is also home to a lab conducting gain-of-function research, the controversial method of studying of how pathogens can become more transmissible and dangerous.

Without evidence to the contrary, the lab in Wuhan can't be ruled out, a fact most people recognize. But Kristian Andersen, professor at Scripps Research and a co-author of the article in Nature, hasn't seen any "credible evidence" to support the theory. "It's based purely on speculation," he said.

"All statements in our article were supported by evidence available at the time, and they have only since been further strengthened by additional evidence, of which there is a great deal," Andersen said.

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A medical assistant administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Immokalee, Florida, on May 20. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The lab leak theory gained new life after The Wall Street Journal published a story last Sunday that said three researchers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized in November 2019. Based on a U.S. intelligence report obtained by the newspaper, the article followed a State Department fact sheet issued in former President Donald Trump's final days that said researchers were sick in fall 2019.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has refuted the report, and the Chinese government has said lab workers tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. The negative test results could indicate that no one at the lab had the virus, making it difficult to conclude it originated there.

But not everyone is confident that China is being truthful. With the cover-up of the SARS outbreak fresh in people's minds and the silencing of scientists and doctors who spoke out in the early days of the pandemic, prominent Republicans, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pushed back on the validity of information coming out of China.

"The Chinese came out very hard and wanted to make clear it didn't come from their laboratory," Pompeo told Fox News on May 18. "The people who could clean this up and answer the questions have refused to. If I'm wrong, they could embarrass Mike Pompeo. Come on, bring it. Show the world this didn't come from Wuhan Institute of Virology."

Garry "absolutely" backs the belief that the virus is naturally occurring, in part because he hasn't seen any evidence of a lab studying a virus close enough to SARS-CoV-2. The virus is also known to replicate and transmit among numerous animal species.

That's "precisely the characteristic" a person would expect to see in a "successful pathogen emerging from nature," he said.

A theory that's largely regarded among scientists to be the more probable origin story is that the coronavirus jumped from bats to an intermediary host to humans. That intermediary host has not yet been found, fueling speculation about the lab leak theory.

Finding that intermediary host requires scientists to "follow the animals," Garry explained, and explore "every possible point of entry." This, he said, could take a while, but focusing attention on the lab would be a "serious mistake."

Under pressure to investigate the virus's origin, President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he had instructed the intelligence community to "redouble" its efforts to collect and analyze information that could "bring us closer to a definitive conclusion." The president acknowledged that with inspectors unable to be "on the ground" in China during the early months of the pandemic, any further research could be hampered. He said the United States will press China to engage in a transparent investigation.

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Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as members of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus make a visit on February 3. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

China has denied it's been anything but transparent since the pandemic began, pointing to the team of scientists that was permitted to come to Wuhan and the lab to investigate the virus's origin earlier this year. The mission was led by the World Health Organization (WHO), and its final report determined that the most likely scenario was that SARS-CoV-2 is a naturally occurring virus and its least likely source was a lab.

That report has come under criticism for being a tainted picture of how the pandemic started, and even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that it had its limitations. With scientists unable to draw a definitive conclusion on the virus's origin, Ghebreyesus called for further investigation, a move the co-authors of the Nature article support as well.

"If our main goal is to truly understand what led to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, such studies need to be collaborative and cannot consist of one-sided demands that are unlikely to be met," Andersen said.