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It might take defector to reveal COVID-19's origin, former investigator says

ABC Health logo ABC Health 13/07/2021

The former lead investigator for former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo into the origins of COVID-19 has told 7.30 that cash may help uncover the truth in the face of a lack of Chinese transparency.

"How about $15 million to the first scientist out of the Wuhan Institute [of Virology] that defects to the United States or Australia?" said David Asher, who was the special coordinator for investigations in the arms control bureau of the Department of State, where he ran an investigation related to the origins of COVID-19.

"There's a way to play the Cold War smart. I got lots of Chinese who I've spoken to. They've risked their lives probably to talk to us. But they're willing to do that.

"Just because they have a totalitarian communist state that's celebrating a 100th anniversary as a party, doesn't mean that they are impenetrable, doesn't mean we can't figure out what happened."

Dr Asher is among a cohort of US officials and scientists who believe to one degree or another that a lab leak was the possible cause of the pandemic.

Dr Asher is adamant, recently testifying to a Republican congressional hearing: "I think this was a lab disaster, a bio meltdown. They covered it up."

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the lab leak theory is still on the table, despite its fact-finding mission earlier this year ruling it "extremely unlikely". The G7 has called for more transparency from Beijing.

Scientific consensus at the WHO and beyond remains that the SARS-COV-2 virus came from animals and spread to humans.

China has repeatedly and angrily rejected the lab-leak theory.

Ninety days to find an answer

US President Joe Biden set a clock in motion back on May 26 when he gave his intelligence agencies three months to come up with a more definitive answer on COVID-19's origins.

So far US intelligence agencies have been split, according to Mr Biden, on animal to human transmission or a lab accident.

"While two elements in the IC [intelligence community] lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other," he said.

The President's spokesperson, Jen Psaki, tried to explain it more clearly.

"The President decided he wanted to do a more extensive review and tap into our lab scientists and experts, our national security team, to see what more we can uncover over the course of 90 days," she said.

That is by August 24.

Most Americans have made their minds up, according to a Politico-Harvard poll released last week which "shows 52 per cent believe the virus came out of a lab, including 59 per cent of Republicans and 52 per cent of Democrats, while 28 per cent said it was from an infected animal".

'Sometimes you need a whistleblower'

Dominic Dwyer is one of only two Australians who has been to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He was there as part of the WHO's fact-finding mission.

"Sometimes you need something like a whistleblower or something like that," Professor Dwyer told 7.30.

"That's how the West found out about some of the work that Russia had done many decades ago in this sort of area, you know, with a defector.

Professor Dwyer believes COVID-19 was transmitted from animals to humans.

"But I think there's no one piece of information [to prove it] other than finding the virus itself in the wild, or having some other information come forward," he said.

"If you take SARS itself in 2003, it took about 14 or 15 years before the final nail in the coffin of the origin of that virus was hammered in. So these things do take time. And I think it's naive to think that the answer is easy."

As for the other Australian, Danielle Anderson was training to get access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology's highest security BSL-4 laboratory just before the first officially recorded case of COVID-19 in late 2019.

She told 7.30 she saw nothing but professionalism.

"When I was working in the lab, I didn't see anything that would lead me to think that there was a breach anywhere," she said.

Speaking about her experience there has proved difficult.

"I have been accused of working for China, I've been accused of working for Bill Gates, I've been accused of all sorts of stuff, and the focus is on anything but science. And so it doesn't make talking about work any easier," she said.

Dr Anderson has a very human analysis: People tell each other things.

She told 7.30 any issues of security, a leak or an accident never came up in discussions — even when she returned to Singapore where she was then based. 

"In December 2019 we had a meeting in Singapore … It was a 20-year anniversary of the nipah [virus] outbreak and a lot of the scientists from Wuhan were over at that meeting," she said.

"People do like to talk and are just interested in like, 'Oh, what's going on? Is there something new happening?' So I just would be really surprised if this wasn't discussed."

Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.

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