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The Renewed Call for an Investigation of Pandemic Origins - Did It Come from a Lab in China?

05-19-2021
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Workers inspect masks at a production line of the Wuhan Zonsen Medical Products Co. Ltd. in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province April 12, 2020.  (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Workers inspect masks at a production line of the Wuhan Zonsen Medical Products Co. Ltd. in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province April 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Eighteen leading scientists want a new investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter published in the journal Science the team questioned the conclusions reached earlier this year by a team chosen by the World Health Organization to look into what caused the viral outbreak in Wuhan, China that so far has taken the lives of more than three million people worldwide and more than 500,000 in the U.S.

The WHO team concluded "a laboratory origin of the pandemic was extremely unlikely" and animal to human infection was "very likely."

However, the scientists' letter argues both theories should be equally weighted, saying "theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable." The letter further points out that the 313-page WHO report only devotes four pages to the lab accident theory.  

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, questions remain over whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology's "gain of function" research is at the root of the pandemic. This type of research is when scientists manipulate a virus to do more than it usually does. For example, causing a virus that usually infects only animals to infect humans. This type of research can be used to develop cures and vaccines or biological warfare. 

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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul questioned government COVID-19 expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, during a hearing last week about whether the U.S. National Institutes of Health funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

He asked, "Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of, the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?"

Dr. Fauci responded, "Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect. The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute."

However,  Sen. Paul persisted, "Government scientists like yourself who favor gain of function research..."

Dr. Fauci interjected, "I don't favor gain of function research in China. You are saying things that are not correct."

Ranking Intelligence Committee member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) disputes Dr. Fauci's assertion. Nunes said after gain of function research stopped in the U.S. in 2014, the NIH gave millions to the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, a portion of which then went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

"When it was banned here in the U.S., or put on pause, the Wuhan research was continuing and likely with U.S. dollars that we still don't have an accounting for," he said.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said the agency never approved funding that supported gain of function research, but he did admit, "We can't absolutely prevent somebody who has an intention of deceiving us about how they've used the funds."

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak calls the lab leak hypothesis a "conspiracy theory." He was part of the WHO team that investigated the pandemic origin that concluded the outbreak likely began from animal to human transmission. 
 
But some people, such as Richard H. Ebright, Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University, and Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, say Daszak's ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology present a conflict of interest. 

So while there's no proof the COVID-19 pandemic began in a Chinese lab, pressure mounts for a more rigorous investigation than before, to include whether U.S. funding may have played a role.

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