The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said he believes COVID-19 originated in animals, but did not rule out the theory that the virus was created in a lab.
In an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box on Monday, Dr Francis Collins said the coronavirus does not have ‘earmarks’ indicating human creation.
However, he said he cannot yet dismiss a scenario in which scientists were studying the pathogen at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and it accidentally escaped.
Collins’ statement comes on the deadline set by President Joe Biden for the intelligence community to investigate the origins of the virus.
Findings by officials will largely be private, though some results will be made public.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told CNBC on Monday (pictured) that he believes COVID-19 originated in animals, but did not dismiss the lab leak theory
Allegations that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology began in May, when it was reported that employees at the lab contracted the virus before Chinese officials reported the earliest cases. Pictured: A French doctor assists a patient in a COVID-19 ward in Paris.
‘The vast evidence from other perspectives says no, this was a naturally occurring virus,’ Collins said.
‘Not to say that it could not have been under study secretly at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and got out of there, we don’t know about that.
‘But the virus itself does not have the earmarks of having been created intentionally by human work.’
Collins did criticize Chinese officials for not assisting World Health Organization (WHO) officials in a separate investigation.
‘I think China basically refused to consider another WHO investigation and just said ‘nope not interested’,’ Collins said.
‘Wouldn’t it be good if they’d actually open up their lab books and let us know what they were actually doing there and find out more about those cases of people who got sick in November of 2019 about which we really don’t know enough.’
For the past several months, there has been back-and-forth speculation about the origins of COVID-19 and whether it came from wild animals or was manufactured in and accidentally escaped from a laboratory.
In May, a report from The Wall Street Journal, citing a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report, detailed how three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) sought hospital care in November 2019, months before China disclosed the COVID-19 pandemic,
The newspaper said the report – which provides fresh details on the number of researchers affected, the timing of their illnesses, and their hospital visits – may add weight to calls for a broader probe of whether the COVID-19 virus could have escaped from the laboratory.
Officials from around the world – including the United States – called to investigate the origins of the virus.
Mike Ryan, director of health emergencies at the WHO, called some of the allegations ‘disturbing’ in May, criticizing countries for politicizing the virus.
‘Over the last number of days, we have seen more and more and more discourse in the media, with terribly little actual news, or evidence, or new material,’ he said.
President Biden then opened the door for intelligence officials to investigate the lab leak theory, giving them 90 days from May 26 to research and make a conclusion.
Tuesday marks the final of the 90 days.
While a lab leak has not been ruled out, many scientists believe that the virus was transmitted to humans from an animal naturally.
It is common for many viruses that cause human outbreaks to start with animals – like H1N1 (originated in pigs) and avian influenza (birds).
Still, though, many have theorized that the institute may be behind the virus.
The Wuhan lab had been studying SARS-related viruses since 2005.
Some virologists have pushed back on these theories becayse there are virology institutes everywhere looking at all kinds of viruses.
‘Nine out of ten times, when there’s a new outbreak, you’ll find a lab that will be working on these kinds of viruses nearby,’ Vincent Munster, a virologist at an NIH lab in Montana told Nature.
Dr Anthony Fauci (pictured) denied that NIH funding was used for ‘gain of function’ research in Wuhan, China.
Coronaviruses are also common in China, Munster notes, and with Wuhan being a location vulnerable to virus outbreaks due to its location as a transit hub, it makes sense it would be performing research on these types of infections.
Some conservative American figures have also accused the NIH and Fauci of assisting the Wuhan institute.
Allegations that the NIH helped fund ‘gain of function research’ – in which scientists amplify traits of viruses to further study them – at the Chinese lab have been made by some.
Sen Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, accused Fauci of lying about NIH funding to Wuhan in a tense exchange during a senate hearing in July.
‘Fauci, as you are aware it is a crime to lie to Congress,’ Paul told Fauci after the latter denied the NIH funding.
‘Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I would like to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about,’ Fauci said.
The NIH previously sent money through a non-profit that helped the Wuhan Institute investigate bat based coronaviruses.
The funds were not used for gain of function research.