In Depth

How the ‘Wuhan lab leak’ went from conspiracy theory to top presidential priority

Anthony Fauci calls on China to release medical records of possible coronavirus victims

Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser has called on Beijing to release the medical records of nine people whose illnesses may provide a vital insight into the origin of Covid-19.

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Financial Times that records relating to researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and miners who fell ill after entering a bat cave in 2012 could provide vital evidence in the ongoing effort to understand the coronavirus outbreak.

“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019. Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with?,” Fauci said. “The same with the [six] miners who got ill years ago… It is entirely conceivable that the origins of Sars-Cov-2 was in that cave and either started spreading naturally or went through the lab.”

Fringe theory

In a statement released by the White House last week, the president said members of the US intelligence community had been asked to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days”.

Fauci’s call for China to release medical records relating to outbreaks of illness at WIV further demonstrates the Biden administration’s interest in investigating the outbreak.

However, critics have been quick to criticise the president’s top adviser, with David Asher, former head of the State Department’s Covid-19 origins investigation telling the FT that he was surprised Fauci had waited so long to demand the release of the records, adding: “I’m stunned that Fauci would now ask this question.”

The suggestion that the coronavirus emerged from a lab in Wuhan began as a fringe conspiracy theory circulated on the internet by sceptics of claims that the virus was spread to humans from an animal at the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

The alternative theory was picked up by then US president Donald Trump, who “repeatedly floated the possibility” in public, The Telegraph reports.

“Experts quickly dismissed the idea that the coronavirus was intentionally developed as a bioweapon”, says The Washington Post. But in April 2020, two journalists from the paper, David Ignatius and Josh Rogin, suggested that “a bat virus being studied in potentially risky experiments could have escaped the lab”.

Rogin reported that US officials had raised concerns about safety at the WIV back in 2018. An unnamed US scientist told the paper: “Whether the staff are interacting with bats in the wild or in the lab, they are routinely putting themselves at risk of infection.” 

Social spread

As chatter about the theory spread online and across mainstream media, Facebook announced in February that the list of misleading health claims automatically removed from its platforms had been expanded to include those asserting that “Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured”.

However, after The Wall Street Journal reported this week that three researchers at WIV were hospitalised in November 2019 with symptoms of Covid-19 - a month before China reported the first infections - the social media giant announced that the previous policy was being reversed.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of Covid-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that Covid-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement to news outlets including Politico.

“We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

Other social media platforms have also said that misleading claims about the origins of the virus may “violate” their policies, the news site reports, “but Facebook’s move marks the first major sign prominent social media companies are revisiting those rules as the Wuhan lab-leak theory gains attention”.

A spokesperson for Twitter said the platform was continuing to “work in close consultation with global public health authorities” on coronavirus misinformation, while Google-owned YouTube did not respond to a Politico request for comment.

Scientific inquiry

A team of World Health Organization (WHO) scientists visited WIV on a fact-finding mission in February, and reported afterwards that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus escaped from the lab. 

However, a group of 17 “top virologists”, including “big hitters such as Marc Lipsitch at Harvard and Ravindra Gupta at Cambridge”, last week called for a “proper investigation” into the “viable hypothesis [of] laboratory spillover”, The Times reports.

Alina Chan, a researcher at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts, told the paper that while she is by no means certain about the origins of the virus, the WHO scientists “didn’t have access to raw data” and “couldn’t speak to witnesses confidentially”.

“The whole way it was conducted, other scientists just found it unacceptable,” she said. “Frankly they just got taken on tour and signed a report at the end of it.”

The WHO scientists have conceded that “of course” there was pressure on their team to “look elsewhere” during their visit to WIV. “Nobody wants to have an origin in your backyard,” Peter Ben Embarek, the Danish scientist who led the investigation, told a press briefing at the end of March. “But we are, again, following the science.”

As the WHO continues to stand by its verdict, The Washington Post notes that “at least publicly, the evidence in favour of a link between the outbreak and the WIV has not changed significantly in months”. “Many virologists still have persistent doubts that such a link exists,” the paper reports.

All the same, according to the US president, the country’s intelligence officials “are currently split over the two possible sources for the virus”, The Telegraph reports. As long as that split remains, the Biden administration will “continue to demand the WHO expand its investigation into the origins of the pandemic”, the paper adds.

CNN reports that Biden has ended a Trump-era investigation, led by then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, into WIV, amid “concerns about the quality of evidence”. 

But the White House remains determined to solve the origins mystery, with senior coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt telling reporters this week that “we need to get to the bottom of this and we need a completely transparent process from China”.

“We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now,” he added.

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