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Local experts support Biden’s call for intelligence community probe into origins of COVID-19

President Biden.
President Biden.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Scientists on Wednesday said getting answers to the precise origins of COVID-19 is paramount, as President Biden asked the US intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to investigate how the global pandemic started.

Biden, in a statement Wednesday, said there’s not enough evidence to conclude “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”

Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said via email that finding out what happened is vitally important.

“I do think understanding the origins of the virus are critical-- largely because they can help us understand how best to prevent the next pandemic,” Karan wrote. “For instance, if this was largely an issue of laboratory safety, we can double down efforts to ensure that containment facilities globally are meeting quality standards.”

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He stressed, “if we can definitively say this did not come from a laboratory or research setting-- that in fact this is a result of increased animal to human interaction (as one example)-- then we can collectively plan on how to identify these high-risk settings better, and ensure people have the right personal protective equipment in these settings.”

Karan added that ultimately, “figuring out Covid19′s origin is so important is because it will help us understand what the most critical steps are to prevent this from happening again. We cannot let this happen again.”

Alina Chan, a post doctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, tweeted Wednesday that a prior study from the Chinese government and World Health Organization found that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, the lab at the center of theories that some type of leak caused the virus, had strong safety measures in place.

“The China-WHO joint study said in their annex (page 132) that the WIV had a strong biosafety management system,” Chan tweeted. “But was the team given a record of the biosafety problems and hidden hazards identified in 2019?”

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Chan was among the signatories of a letter published earlier this month in the journal Science calling on authorities to investigate the origins of the pandemic.

The letter said “more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who also signed the letter, on Tuesday tweeted out a link to a Washington Post story on the timeline of how the “Wuhan lab-leak” theory became credible.

“A key point: lab leak does not imply manipulation and manipulation does not imply ill intent,” Lipsitch wrote.

Samuel V. Scarpino, a Northeastern epidemiologist, said via email that the evidence suggests the virus was “not engineered in a lab.”

He said, however, that “a natural origin does not rule out a lab release. It could have been collected from nature, but accidentally released or infected a worker. To date, the evidence is less consistent with a lab release and more consistent with a spillover directly from an infected animal. But, we have not ruled out a lab release.”

Kristian G. Andersen, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, tweeted Tuesday, prior to Biden’s announcement, that he was skeptical of the leak theory.

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Andersen wrote that any leak scenarios “require that the WIV had the virus prior to the pandemic. There is no evidence to support that claim - it’s based purely on speculation and available evidence is strongly suggestive that they did not. WIV has also denied it.”

Biden, meanwhile, said in Wednesday’s statement that he wants an update from his intelligence team in 90 days.

“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said. “I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”

Scarpino said learing the origins of COVID-19 would be useful, but officials should proceed cautiously.

“Although we may never learn definitively where SARS-CoV-2 came from, learning more about its origins will help us prevent the next pandemic,” Scarpino wrote. “But, given the geopolitical implications and the anti-Asian racism in the US, we must proceed thoughtfully and respectfully with any investigation.”

He also said the US government performed woefully at the height of the pandemic.

“I’d also like to highlight the abject failure of the past administration to control COVID-19,” Scarpino wrote. “Regardless of its origin, we desperately need investment in molecular surveillance, public health data systems, and epidemic forecasting.”

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.