EXPLAINER: The US investigation into COVID-19 origins

Once dismissed by most public health experts and government officials, the hypothesis that COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny under a new U.S. investigation.

Posted: Jun 9, 2021 4:43 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Once dismissed by most public health experts and government officials, the hypothesis that COVID-19 leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny under a new U.S. investigation.

Experts say the 90-day review ordered on May 26 by President Joe Biden will push American intelligence agencies to collect more information and review what they already have. Former State Department officials under President Donald Trump have publicly pushed for further investigation into virus origins, as have scientists and the World Health Organization.

Many scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they still believe the virus most likely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to humans. Virus researchers have not publicly identified any key new scientific evidence that might make the lab-leak hypothesis more likely.

Virologists also say it is unlikely that any definitive answer about virus origins will be possible in 90 days. The work to fully confirm origins and pathways of past viruses — such as the first SARS or HIV/AIDS — has taken years or decades.

A look at what is known about the U.S. investigation of the virus.

WHAT ARE INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES REVIEWING?

Biden ordered a review of what the White House said was an initial finding leading to “two likely scenarios,” an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House statement says two agencies in the 18-member intelligence community lean toward the hypothesis of a transmission in nature; another agency leans toward a lab leak.

One document drawing new attention is a State Department fact sheet published in the last days of Trump’s administration. The memo notes that the U.S. believes three researchers at a Wuhan, China, lab sought medical treatment for a respiratory illness in November 2019. However, the report is not conclusive: The origin and severity of the staffers’ illness is not known — and most people in China regularly go to hospitals, not primary-care physicians, for routine care.

The memo also pointed to “gain of function” studies — which in theory could enhance the lethality or transmissibility of a virus — allegedly done at the Wuhan lab with U.S. backing. However, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has since adamantly denied that the U.S. supported any “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses in Wuhan.

David Feith, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Trump, said he supported Biden’s call for an enhanced review. “Implicit in the president’s statement is that there is more to analyze and more to collect than has been analyzed or collected to date," Feith said.

The Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

IS CHINA HAMPERING INVESTIGATIONS?

The White House statement criticized China for a lack of transparency, echoing previous criticisms by Democrats and Republicans. “The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” the White House said.

The Associated Press has reported on China’s interference in the World Health Organization’s probes of the virus and its fanning of conspiracy theories online. China has also forced journalists to leave the country in recent years and silenced or jailed whistleblowers from Wuhan and elsewhere.

The lack of transparency in China is a significant and familiar challenge. But that does not in itself signal that something in particular is being hidden.

“The problem is when you make that announcement (Biden’s call for investigation) in a highly politicized environment, it makes it even less likely that China will cooperate with efforts to find the origins of the virus,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

WHAT DO SCIENTISTS BELIEVE ABOUT VIRUS ORIGINS?

The most compelling argument for investigating the possibility of a lab leak is not any new hard evidence, but rather the fact that another pathway for virus spread has not been 100% confirmed.

“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” said Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada. He pointed to the fact that spillover events – when viruses jump from animals to humans – are common in nature, and that scientists already know of two similar beta coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused epidemics when humans were infected, SARS1 and MERS.

However, the case is not completely closed. “There are probabilities, and there are possibilities,” said Banerjee. “Because nobody has identified a virus that’s 100% identical to SARS-CoV-2 in any animal, there is still room for researchers to ask about other possibilities.”

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO CONFIRM THE ORIGIN OF A VIRUS?

Confirming with 100% certainty the origin of a virus is often not fast, easy, or always even possible.

For example, scientists never confirmed the origin of smallpox before the disease was eradicated through a global vaccination program.

In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – a disease caused by a beta coronavirus, like the current coronavirus – researchers first identified the virus in February 2003. Later that year, scientists discovered the likely intermediary hosts: Himalayan palm civets found at live-animal markets in Guangdong, China. But it wasn’t until 2017 that researchers traced the likely original source of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO UNDERSTAND THE ORIGIN?

From a scientific perspective, researchers are always keen to better understand how diseases evolve. From a public health perspective, if a virus has transitioned to being spread mostly by human-to-human contact, discovering its origins is not as essential to strategies for containing the disease.

“Questions of origins and questions of disease control are not the same thing once human-to-human transmission has become common,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in environment and public health at Villanova University.

Republicans have pressed for more inquiries into a possible lab leak as part of a broader effort to blame China and vindicate Trump's handling of the pandemic. Nearly 600,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, the highest toll of any country.

WHAY HAPPENS AFTER THE 90 DAYS?

Many scientists caution that it's unlikely a 90-day investigation will yield definitive new answers.

“We rarely get a ‘smoking gun,'" said Stephen Morse, a disease researcher at Columbia University. “Even under the best of circumstances we rarely get certainty, just degrees of likelihood."

Any findings will likely be politically explosive, especially if new evidence comes to light supporting or dismissing the zoonotic transfer or lab-leak theory. And a failure to reach definitive conclusions, almost inevitable after a 90-day review, could provide grist for Trump supporters and opponents alike, as well as embolden conspiracy theorists.

Meanwhile experts like the Council on Foreign Relations' Huang suspect China may simply clamp down more, adding another complication to already tense relations. “This will likely make it even more challenging to extract concessions from China to allow another team to visit Wuhan, or have unfettered access to investigate there,” he said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 319115

Reported Deaths: 7353
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22246264
Hinds20612421
Harrison18342316
Rankin13855282
Jackson13666248
Madison10213224
Lee10050176
Jones8452167
Forrest7810153
Lauderdale7253242
Lowndes6488149
Lamar632288
Lafayette6295120
Washington5412136
Bolivar4833133
Panola4659110
Oktibbeha465898
Pearl River4591146
Marshall4571105
Warren4436121
Pontotoc424573
Union415576
Monroe4154135
Neshoba4059179
Lincoln4007111
Hancock385187
Leflore3514125
Tate342386
Sunflower339391
Pike3366110
Alcorn323272
Scott319274
Yazoo313971
Adams304785
Itawamba304777
Copiah299666
Coahoma298283
Simpson297889
Tippah291168
Prentiss283361
Leake271674
Marion271280
Covington266683
Wayne264442
Grenada264087
George251851
Newton248563
Tishomingo230867
Winston229881
Jasper222048
Attala214973
Chickasaw210459
Holmes190374
Clay187454
Stone187233
Tallahatchie179941
Clarke178980
Calhoun173732
Yalobusha167740
Smith164034
Walthall135147
Greene131633
Lawrence131024
Montgomery128643
Noxubee127934
Perry126638
Amite125942
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Tunica107927
Jefferson Davis107633
Claiborne102930
Benton102225
Humphreys97533
Kemper96628
Franklin84923
Quitman81816
Choctaw79018
Wilkinson69332
Jefferson66228
Sharkey50817
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 547323

Reported Deaths: 11266
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson808021563
Mobile41925826
Madison35600522
Tuscaloosa26136458
Shelby25554254
Montgomery25067610
Baldwin21774313
Lee16234175
Calhoun14692325
Morgan14614285
Etowah14132361
Marshall12443230
Houston10748287
Elmore10295212
Limestone10180157
St. Clair10146250
Cullman9921200
Lauderdale9582248
DeKalb8955189
Talladega8441184
Walker7318279
Autauga7215113
Blount6925139
Jackson6900113
Colbert6394139
Coffee5616126
Dale4928114
Russell454441
Chilton4461116
Franklin430683
Covington4263122
Tallapoosa4117154
Escambia400280
Chambers3715123
Dallas3604156
Clarke352861
Marion3231106
Pike313978
Lawrence3121100
Winston283372
Bibb267364
Geneva256981
Marengo250565
Pickens236562
Barbour234559
Hale226578
Butler223371
Fayette217162
Henry193843
Cherokee187245
Randolph186844
Monroe179141
Washington170339
Macon163051
Clay159559
Crenshaw155057
Cleburne152543
Lamar145837
Lowndes141953
Wilcox127030
Bullock124242
Conecuh112930
Coosa111129
Perry108726
Sumter105732
Greene93434
Choctaw61725
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