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Opinion: What if the former CDC director is right about the Wuhan labs?

The Honorable Robert Redfield, M.D.
 

Ingrained narratives are hard to correct. In his biographical essay “Why Orwell Matters,” Christopher Hitchens quotes George Orwell on the “power of facing unpleasant facts.” Orwell knew it was difficult but important to pull back from our political affiliations, biases and past conclusions to reckon with uncomfortable realities and potentially explosive questions — questions such as: What if Robert Redfield is right about the Wuhan labs?

Before Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the coronavirus outbreak, endorsed it, the mere discussion of the still-unproven theory that the covid-19 outbreak might have been connected to human error at a research laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan was considered taboo. The issue of the virus’s origin has been horrendously politicized, by both the right and the left. The Chinese government and U.S. scientists who are close associates of the Wuhan scientists doing bat coronavirus research have tarred anyone who uttered it as conspiracy theorists, or worse (in their eyes), as pro-Trump.

And although it’s true the Trump administration contributed to this politicization, it’s also true that the Biden administration has confirmed some of the Trump team’s factual claims about suspicious and still-undisclosed work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which amounts to a direct challenge to the lab’s claim that it has been transparent and honest.

Further challenging the official narrative, Redfield told CNN in an interview released last week that he believes the outbreak likely did originate from research in the Wuhan labs, based on how the virus acts. But though he is a trained virologist who saw the underlying intelligence, he was accused of spreading speculation and even fueling hate.

Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and biosafety expert, told me we must begin a difficult, uncomfortable conversation about this investigation’s scope and the vast implications if the theory is true. He said the entire genre of research Redfield was referring to, known as gain-of-function research (in which viruses are captured from the wild and developed in lab settings to make them more dangerous), needs to be thoroughly reexamined.

“The very fact that it could have been of laboratory origin, even if that cannot be substantiated, means we need to understand that there is risk in this research that may have triggered the current pandemic and surely could trigger a future pandemic,” he said.

“The plan is, having failed to predict and preempt and having possibly triggered the current pandemic, to increase the scale six times,” Ebright said.

Even before the pandemic, many scientists argued that hunting viruses in the wild has marginal scientific value, and that the money spent on prediction would be better used for monitoring and screening in the places outbreaks are likely. But most scientists involved in virus research are beholden to the current system and therefore silent or defensive, Ebright said.

“I agree this is entirely appropriate, although clearly most of the immediate focus would need to be on the Wuhan labs, given their geography and the work they were doing,” he said.

If Redfield is right, that would mean China bears some accountability for the outbreak, which will greatly complicate already tense relations. If Redfield is right, that would also mean the U.S. government had a big role in supporting the research that resulted in the pandemic outbreak. If Redfield is right, the current response plan could greatly increase, not reduce, the risk of another pandemic.

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