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Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN Friday he believes the virus that causes COVID-19 was accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan, China.
He offered no explanation for this idea other than to say as a virologist, he does not believe the virus could have been so contagious when it jumped directly from an animal to a person. Instead, he contends it was manipulated in a Wuhan research laboratory to become more contagious and then accidently released by a worker in September or October 2019, a few months before coming to public attention.
Several scientists said Redfield's theory did not pass the scientific smell test.
"There's a fundamental difference between having a theory and testing a theory and showing evidence that your theory is a fact," said Paul Duprex, a virologist and director of the center for vaccine research at the University of Pittsburgh.
Duprex, who runs a biosafety level three lab, which handles dangerous pathogens, said he would never rule out the possibility of human error.
"No open-minded scientist will ever say to you, or should say to you, 'this is impossible," he said. "What a good scientist will say is, 'Where is the evidence?'"
Duprex said he has seen no evidence to suggest the virus first emerged from a lab.
The World Health Organization, which has been investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, considers the lab-leak scenario so unlikely it discontinued research in that hypothesis.
President Joe Biden declined Friday to offer his view of the possible origins of the virus.
"I have theories, but I'm not a scientist," he said in response to a reporter's question. "I'm going to wait until the scientific community makes that judgment."
W. Ian Lipkin, director of the center for infection and immunity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said he thinks the virus jumped directly from animals to people – probably from wild animal farms, which the WHO team found operating in Wuhan.
“That seems to be the most likely and plausible explanation, particularly since we’ve seen so many of these viruses emerge in just this way,” he said, citing Zika, West Nile and the first SARS virus.
COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, which belongs to the coronavirus family of viruses. Research published last summer in the journal Nature suggested the virus first evolved in bats and circulated among them for decades before jumping to people, possibly after passing through another animal first.
SARS-CoV-2 also passed from humans to mink and back again during the pandemic, suggesting the virus is very transmissible between species, Lipkin added.
The WHO team examined the laboratory work of a number of researchers in Wuhan and found "no evidence at all that any of the labs in China were working on this virus prior to the outbreak," according to Peter Daszak, a team member and expert on animal-to-human diseases, who has also worked closely with one of the researchers in Wuhan.
"You can't prove a negative. You can't definitively say that wasn't going on," he said. "All you can do is look at what they were doing in that lab. What have they published from that lab. Did they have viruses that were the potential ancestor of SARS-CoV-2? Again, no evidence of that."
WHO's final report was rumored to be coming out Friday, but instead will be made public "very soon," said Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that supports global health and pandemic prevention.
Speaking with CNN's Sanjay Gupta, Redfield emphasized he was expressing his personal opinion, not as as a public official. Redfield, who trained as a virologist, said he came to the belief because of the speed at which the virus spread.
"I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human, and at that moment in time that the virus came to the human became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission," Redfield said.
He gave no evidence to support his belief that the virus began circulating in September or October 2019.
A genetic study published earlier this month in the journal Science found the first person was likely infected between mid-October and mid-November.
"This is not the time to add wild speculation to a global crisis," said Stephen Morse, a professor epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Speculation isn’t constructive, it doesn’t help us control the pandemic, and only distracts from the urgent work and global cooperation we need."
It has long been known that respiratory coronaviruses can spread efficiently from person-to-person. Four types of the common cold are caused by coronaviruses. "We just never really took them very seriously," Morse said.
Governments across the world, including in the U.S. Italy, Mexico, Brazil, made the same mistake, downplaying the virus in the early days, Morse said. They "should have paid more attention to this emerging problem back in January 2020. Why didn’t the governments coordinate efforts before it was too late?"
Contact Karen Weintraub at email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex-CDC head says coronavirus escaped Chinese lab; scientists dubious