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Scientists React As NIH Head Francis Collins Calls Wuhan Lab Leak Theories 'Misinformation'

Newsweek logo Newsweek 10/21/2021 Ed Browne
NIH director Dr Francis Collins speaking at a U.S. vaccine rollout subcommittee hearing on July 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Collins is due to leave his post before the end of this year. © Saul Loeb/Pool / Getty NIH director Dr Francis Collins speaking at a U.S. vaccine rollout subcommittee hearing on July 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Collins is due to leave his post before the end of this year.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has penned a statement refuting "misinformation" about the origins of COVID-19, specifically focusing on federally funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The WIV has been at the center of COVID lab leak theories throughout the pandemic, partly due to its proximity to the Chinese city where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported.

The theories have gained traction this year, particularly after international governments voiced concerns about the World Health Organization's original investigation into the pandemic's origins, which deemed a lab-leak scenario to be "extremely unlikely."

The theory is considered a possibility today following an independent investigation by the Biden administration that specifically investigated whether SARS-CoV-2 could have been accidentally released from a lab, but ultimately came back inconclusive.

In addition, leaked documents have also outlined the relationship between WIV and U.S. research group EcoHealth Alliance, the latter of which provided the WIV with federal funds via a subaward.

Critics, such as the COVID research activist group DRASTIC, consider the documents to show risky research practices surrounding the development of coronaviruses for study purposes.

On Wednesday, Collins, who is due to leave his post as NIH director before the end of the year, released a statement addressing lab leak reports and theories.

"Unfortunately, in the absence of a definitive answer, misinformation and disinformation are filling the void, which does more harm than good," he wrote.

Collins said it is "not unusual" for virus origins to be hard to trace, noting that it took 14 years for scientists to find the bat population linked to the 2003 SARS epidemic and that the origin of 2014 Ebola outbreak is still yet to be traced.

He wrote that the natural bat coronaviruses studied by WIV under federal grants "are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic," and that "scientific evidence to date indicates that the virus is likely the result of viral evolution in nature, potentially jumping directly to humans."

The statement has been pored over by critics. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King's College London, told Newsweek there is "no hard evidence" underpinning either natural or research-related COVID origin theories.

"Misinformation around the pandemic's origins is a significant issue, but this statement simply muddies the water," she said. "Collins' statement should have acknowledged the possibility of a biosafety lapse in the course of scientific research, such as a direct-to-human spillover during bat sampling in caves or while handling bats or viruses in the laboratory."

Jeremy Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, told Newsweek it is "not surprising" that there is not yet a definitive answer regarding the origins of COVID, since the investigation "is a very difficult endeavor that can take many years."

Jonathan Stoye, senior group leader at the U.K.'s Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, told Newsweek he doubted Collins' statement would change the opinions of hardline lab leak proponents.

"I am not certain whether this statement from the NIH will change such a view; rather it may harden opinions," he said. "Instead, we need a detailed examination of the various lab leak hypotheses, asking whether the steps required for virus escape can be confirmed or eliminated from consideration."

Richard Ebright, a vocal critic of the EcoHealth Alliance-WIV research, called the statement "pathetic" in a tweet, pointing to what he called "untruthful assertions by Collins and Fauci that NIH had not funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan."

Newsweek has contacted the NIH for comment on Ebright's tweet.

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