World Health Organization Open To More Investigation On Lab Leak Theory : Consider This from NPR From the beginning of the pandemic, the debate about the origins of the coronavirus was immediately politicized by former President Donald Trump. But now international efforts to investigate and find answers have stalled. NPR's Will Stone explains why.

Despite a new focus on the lab leak theory, many scientists still believe the virus emerged naturally, reports NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has also reported on the media's coverage of the lab leak theory.

Listen to Fresh Air's interview with Vanity Fair's Katherine Eban on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Pocket Casts. Read Eban's article about the lab leak theory here: The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19's Origins.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

The Unproven Lab Leak Theory Puts Pressure On China — But It May Backfire

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Scientists haven't ruled out the idea that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in China. In other words, there's a chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

JON STEWART: A chance?

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well...

STEWART: So...

COLBERT: I...

STEWART: Oh, my God.

COLBERT: If there was evidence, I'd love to hear it. I just don't know.

SHAPIRO: It's a theory that former President Trump repeatedly promoted without evidence, which is why ex-"Daily Show" host Jon Stewart surprised some viewers when he endorsed the lab leak theory on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEWART: And then they asked those scientists. They're like, how did this - so wait a minute. You work at the Wuhan respiratory coronavirus lab. How did this happen? And they're like, a pangolin kissed a turtle.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: And you're like, no.

SHAPIRO: The lab he's referring to in Wuhan specializes in coronaviruses because other coronaviruses have been found in and around China. An outbreak in that area of the world in a city of 11 million people isn't automatically suspicious, but that doesn't mean the issue has been put to rest.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: I think that we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we find out to the best of our ability exactly what happened.

SHAPIRO: That was Dr. Anthony Fauci last month. Weeks later, President Biden said there was disagreement in the American intelligence community about whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. Biden ordered a 90-day review of those possibilities.

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FAUCI: Certainly, the people who have investigated say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else. And we need to find that out. So, you know, that's the reason why I said I'm perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - scientists still can't say for certain how the coronavirus emerged, but that debate became political almost immediately. And now the international effort to find answers has stalled. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Tuesday, June 22.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The pandemic was just months old when former President Trump began promoting the idea that the coronavirus leaked from a lab.

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JOHN ROBERTS: Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?

DONALD TRUMP: Yes, I have. Yes, I have.

I will tell you, more and more, we're hearing the story.

We have a lot of information, and it's not good.

We're looking at it. A lot of people are looking at it. It seems to make sense. They talk about it.

SHAPIRO: Trump said things like this repeatedly during the spring of 2020, but his administration never presented any evidence to back up his assertions.

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KATHERINE EBAN: And this was from the same president, of course, who is making racist slurs against Asians and calling this the kung flu.

SHAPIRO: Vanity Fair journalist Katherine Eban, who wrote about the lab leak theory recently, said in an interview on WHYY's Fresh Air that the former president's rhetoric immediately changed the nature of the debate over the origins of the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EBAN: The fact that he put that out there seemed to sort of brand it as a conspiracy theory and created a kind of antibody response within the government, as one of my sources put it, you know, where people felt they were absolutely determined to fight against what they saw as a conspiracy of this magnitude.

SHAPIRO: And the former president's long track record of false and misleading statements probably made reporters less likely to ask tough questions about where the virus came from. But the fact remains that still, more than a year later, Trump and former members of his administration have never presented evidence to support the lab leak theory.

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MIKE POMPEO: We got very close to being able to make a lay-down case for what actually happened and how this virus came to kill millions of people around the world.

SHAPIRO: Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is widely viewed as preparing for a presidential run in 2024, was asked about it on Fox News just last week and again provided no evidence to back up his claims.

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POMPEO: There's a pile of evidence a hundred feet high. I have high confidence that that's the case.

SHAPIRO: The bottom line is that when it comes to the origins of the coronavirus, political voices have sometimes been louder than scientific ones. The scientific community does welcome more investigation, like the review President Biden ordered last month. But many experts still think the virus probably came from nature. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEOFF BRUMFIEL: Biden announced he was ordering a 90-day review of the intelligence around the origins of the coronavirus, including whether it was the result of a laboratory accident. For many, the announcement felt like a big change, putting what had been a conspiracy theory about the virus' origins back on the table. But Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University who has analyzed the genome of the coronavirus - he still thinks there's a good chance it came from the wild.

ROBERT GARRY: Nothing's really, you know, tipped me or made me flip-flop or anything like that about it. I mean, you know, I'm more convinced than ever that, you know, this is a natural virus.

BRUMFIEL: Ebola, HIV, influenza all come from nature. For this new coronavirus, most of the first reported cases were in wet markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Wet markets played a major role in the case of the original SARS virus, which began spreading in the early 2000s. Back then, the virus was traced quickly.

GARRY: People got lucky. They were able to identify, you know, the restaurants that the first cases ate at and then go back to the wildlife farms where, you know, they had bought the civets, as it turns out.

BRUMFIEL: Those civets had been infected by bats carrying the virus. The fact that nobody's pinpointed the source for this new coronavirus isn't particularly unusual, he says. It could take years to figure out. But he thinks it's out there.

GARRY: It's just a matter of time, I think, before we find, you know, the progenitor in a bat or some other species.

BRUMFIEL: Ian Lipkin is another researcher who's taken a hard look at the genetics of this virus. Lipkin's at Columbia University. He says that there's no evidence for human manipulation. In fact, the way this virus infects people is so quirky, he thinks it couldn't have been made in a lab.

IAN LIPKIN: We would not have known how to design this virus even if we wanted to do so. And when I say we, I really do mean the scientific community, whether we're talking about scientists in the U.S. or Europe or in China, for that matter.

BRUMFIEL: But, he adds, it's still possible that a scientist in China could have collected the coronavirus in nature.

LIPKIN: It's possible that the virus was brought into a laboratory, that it was grown inside of a cell line, that somebody became infected and left the laboratory, inadvertently carried the virus with them.

BRUMFIEL: The laboratory in question, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has collected viruses in the field, and they've published some of the genetic sequences. So far, none have matched SARS-CoV-2. Alina Chan is a geneticist at MIT. She says there's not enough evidence to know where the virus came from.

ALINA CHAN: Both scenarios are still on the table.

BRUMFIEL: She's been pushing for a more thorough consideration of the lab accident theory. Former President Trump frequently raised the possibility of a lab leak, and Chan says that made it tough for scientists to impartially discuss the idea. She hopes Biden's announcement will change the tone of the conversation.

CHAN: I think it opens the door for other scientists to weigh in without being called, like, a conspiracy theorist.

BRUMFIEL: I mean, were members of the scientific community calling you a conspiracy theorist for saying this?

CHAN: Yeah, lots of them (laughter). I was compared to, like, insurrectionists and QAnon.

BRUMFIEL: In the end, all three scientists agree that the available evidence is not conclusive, and all welcomed the intelligence community's investigation. Chan says the question of where this virus came from needs to be answered.

CHAN: Our lives depend on finding out how this virus got started so that we can prevent another one from getting started in five to 10 years from now.

SHAPIRO: That report from NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

International investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of all this. Back in March, the World Health Organization released a joint report with Beijing following a four-week investigation in China. The report concluded, among other things, that the lab leak hypothesis was, quote, "extremely unlikely." But days later, the WHO's own director-general said he didn't believe the team's assessment of the lab leak possibility was extensive enough. And he said the organization was ready to deploy more investigators. That brings us to where we are now, with scientists ready for further study but stuck waiting in the wings while U.S. and Chinese negotiators stand in the center of the international stage. Here's NPR's Will Stone.

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WILL STONE: Science may ultimately settle the question of where the coronavirus emerged, but the holdup right now is diplomacy. China wants the next step of the international probe to focus on other countries as the possible source. The U.S. disagrees, and the World Health Organization is left in a tricky place. The U.N. agency arranged an investigation inside China earlier this year but doesn't have a lot of other options at the moment. Dr. Mike Ryan, head of emergencies for the WHO, recently told reporters...

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MIKE RYAN: WHO doesn't have the power to compel anyone in this regard.

STONE: The WHO acknowledges the earlier investigation was highly restricted by China and reached no firm conclusions. But Ryan maintains the agency is still pushing.

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RYAN: We work through consensus. And that has worked for us and for our member states for 70 years.

STONE: Except some who know the WHO well and the China-U.S. relationship are skeptical.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: We're at an impasse.

STONE: That's Lawrence Gostin, an expert on public health law at Georgetown University.

GOSTIN: China is implacably opposed to a continued investigation and certainly opposed to one that's fully transparent.

STONE: Gostin says China has dragged its feet on this origins question all along, so why would that change now, especially since speculation over whether the virus leaked from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan has gone mainstream?

GOSTIN: China will dig its heels in even more given the public criticism because it sees this in stark political terms.

STONE: The WHO does plan to hold talks in the fall to consider an international pandemic treaty. And Gostin says countries could try to expand the WHO's powers on the coronavirus investigation, a move that China would likely oppose. Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

YANZHONG HUANG: I think China has not shut the door. It has left flexibility.

STONE: But Huang says this also depends on the Biden administration toning down the rhetoric.

HUANG: Instead of publicly accusing China of covering up, quiet diplomacy would be a more constructive approach.

STONE: But it could be too late for that. President Biden has publicly ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to double down on their review of the likely origin of the virus. Juliette Kayyem was a homeland security official under President Obama who's now at Harvard.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: I think in the end, the Biden administration's review is likely to be inconclusive and satisfy no one a hundred percent.

STONE: But Kayyem hopes the Biden administration's effort will at least underscore how the WHO took China's word far too often early in the outbreak - for instance, repeating that the virus did not spread human-to-human and waiting until March to declare a pandemic.

KAYYEM: We're not going to war with China over this. But what it can do is put pressure on the WHO about how it conducts itself in these kinds of investigations and how China is not to be believed anymore.

STONE: In a rare move, the head of the WHO called out China in the spring for not being more transparent during the investigation there. But even if China does let a team of scientists back into the country, what would it find? Dr. Daniel Lucey is an expert on infectious disease outbreaks and teaches at Georgetown. He says he assumes China has already followed the obvious leads, like tracking down the supply chain of animals to the Wuhan market.

DANIEL LUCEY: It's just not plausible to me at all that China didn't already do that. They did that.

STONE: And Lucey says when it comes to the lab leak theory...

LUCEY: I just don't see any reason China would ever allow a forensic lab investigation. Even then, if you want to hide something, you can hide it.

STONE: Which is why he thinks the only way to get China on board is to back off the lab leak theory, gather a new team of scientists and see what new evidence China is willing to share - no questions asked.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Will Stone. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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