- The Washington Times
Monday, April 20, 2020

A scientific study recommended by White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci pointing to the origin of coronavirus pandemic as a jump from animals to humans also concludes it cannot be ruled out that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory.

A second study recommended Friday by Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, argues that similarities between the bat-origin coronavirus known as SARS-Cov-2 and a coronavirus carried by pangolins, a type of anteater, are indications the disease was first spread by an animal sold at Chinese markets.

However, the second study was partially funded by the Chinese government, and co-authored by Chinese scientist Zhang Yongzhen and Australian scientist Edward C. Holmes, who once was associated with the China Center for Disease Control and is an honorary professor at a Chinese university — raising questions about whether their report may have been influenced by the Chinese government.

China’s government has denied the virus leaked from one of two Wuhan laboratories engaged in extensive research on deadly bat coronaviruses, releasing a video interview by state-run television with the director of one of the labs over the weekend insisting there is “absolutely no way that the virus originated from our institute.”

Dr. Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday that current research by evolutionary virologists “is totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”

In an email to The Washington Times, Dr. Fauci provided the links to two scientific papers — one in the journal Nature Medicine published on March 17 written by five scientists who studied the new virus, including Mr. Holmes. The paper states it is “improbable” the virus was produced or manipulated in a laboratory based on its genetic cell material.

Significantly, however, the study did not rule out that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory.

The study said basic research on SARS-like coronaviruses in laboratory cultures and animals “has been ongoing for many years in biosafety Level-2 laboratories across the world.” Additionally, laboratory escapes of the virus behind SARS-CoV, the virus that caused a less deadly SARS pandemic in 2003, have been documented, including in China.

“We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release” of the current coronavirus strain, the report said.

President Trump and top Pentagon officials last week confirmed U.S. intelligence is looking into the controversy over the origins of COVID-19.

The second study cited by Dr. Fauci, a study partially funded by the Shanghai government, was published in the journal Cell on Thursday. It reported that the COVID-19 virus is related one found in horseshoe bats first discovered in Yunan Province in southern China and that its rapid emergence and global spread constitutes “a perfect epidemiological storm.”

Mr. Zhang and Mr. Holmes, the authors, visited the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market in 2014 and showed photographs of wild animals being offered for sale. The article suggested the animals were “a potent mechanism for zoonotic transmission” to humans.

“Importantly, although many of the early COVID-19 cases were linked to this market, its role in the initial emergence of SARS-CoV-2 remains uncertain,” the article says.

The Cell report says that bats are the likely host of the new virus, but because of bats’ separation from humans “it is probable that other mammalian species” were intermediate or amplifying hosts that permitted “efficient human transmission” after mutation. The two scientists also suggest the virus may have achieved the mutations necessary for spreading to human before the first outbreak in December and “perhaps not even in Wuhan.”

That argument supports a recent disinformation campaign by Chinese officials who have asserted that the virus began in the United States, Iran Italy or Japan. U.S. officials have said the disinformation is intended to deflect criticism of China for its role in launching the pandemic that has devastated the world economy and killed tens of thousands.

Mr. Zhang was among first scientists to release one of the genome sequences of the new virus on Jan. 5. After that, his center was shut down by Chinese authorities for unspecified “rectification” as the genome was released outside Beijing’s control.

The third source provided by Dr. Fauci was a published statement by Mr. Holmes, who said there is “no evidence” that COVID-19 “originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.”

“Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 are commonly found in wildlife species and frequently jump to new hosts. This is also the most likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” the statement said.

Mr. Holmes’ University of Sydney biography say he was a guest professor at the Chinese CDC in Beijing, and an honorary visiting professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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