CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — International pressure is growing for an investigation into how COVID-19 first infected humans.
The Times, based in London, reported over the weekend that British intelligence officials now believe it’s “feasible” that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. The theory, once relegated as a conspiratorial fantasy, is now gaining mainstream traction.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology studies pathogens, and has done extensive work with coronaviruses. They studied SARS-CoV-1, which caused the SARS outbreak, after it flared in 2002.
The institute collects genetic material from wildlife for experimentation at its Wuhan lab. Researchers experiment with live viruses in animals to gauge human susceptibility. To reduce the risk of pathogens escaping accidentally, the facility is supposed to enforce rigorous safety protocols, such as protective garb and super air filtration. But even the strictest measures cannot eliminate such risks.
As the pandemic has gone on, experts have warmed to the possibility of the virus escaping the lab. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease scientist, told a Senate committee last month that he’s “fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China.” That came a year after telling National Geographic the evidence “is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated.”
A U.S. State Department fact sheet, released in the waning days of the Trump Administration, alleged, without proof, that several WIV researchers had fallen sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or common seasonal illnesses before the first publicly confirmed case in December 2019.
President joe Biden has ordered American investigators to submit a report within 90 days, and pledged to release the results of their findings publicly. China responded by accusing the U.S. of playing politics with the virus.
Despite calls for an investigation, scientists are not necessarily saying the lab theory will be proven correct. The most recent report from the World Health Organization still said the lab leak theory is “extremely unlikely,” but Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s director general, said that assessment was not extensive enough.
The WHO is also investigating when the virus began infecting humans, including the possibility that it was in Italy as early as October 2019.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.