Dr. Robert Redfield Takes the Right Approach

    Medical staff treat a patient with pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 28, 2020. (China Daily via China Out /Reuters )

    Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, takes exactly the right stance, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t claim to know for certain that the COVID-19 pandemic occurred because of a lab leak in Wuhan, and acknowledges that the virus’s origin remains unknown, but he thinks the lab-leak scenario is a strong possibility.

    “If I was to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September, October in Wuhan,” he told CNN, adding he is “of the point of view that I still think the most likely aetiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, escaped.”

    “Other people don’t believe that,” Redfield said. “That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out. It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”

    CNN’s New Day program is quick to point out on Twitter, “Despite a lack of clear evidence, former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a CNN documentary clip released Friday that he believes the novel coronavirus began transmitting in fall 2019 and that the virus may have originated in a lab in China.”

    But careful scientists are fond of the aphorism, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    The thing is, if there was a lab leak, both the lab and the Chinese government would have an enormous incentive to hide and/or destroy any clear evidence, no? I frequently point out the sometimes eye-popping history of lab leaks, but what probably doesn’t get enough emphasis is that many of those cases, we often don’t learn about those leaks until years later, particularly in authoritarian regimes. The Russian government didn’t admit to the 1979 anthrax leak from Sverdlovsk until 1992. Authoritarian regimes don’t like admitting mistakes, they don’t like appearing flawed or incompetent, and they certainly don’t like admitting that a virus that has killed more than 2.7 million people around the world might be the result of their negligence or recklessness. We know the Chinese government spent at least three weeks insisting the SARS-CoV-2 couldn’t be spread from human to human, despite the assessments of warnings from doctors on the ground in Wuhan.

    Members of the World Health Organization have confirmed (conceded?) that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did get sick with flu-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019, shortly before the first cases of COVID-19 — but contend those illnesses are unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak.

    Virologist Marion Koopmans, who was part of that World Health Organization team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year, said that she knows these illnesses couldn’t be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak, because the Chinese government told the WHO that those researchers tested negative for COVID-19.

    Really? I mean, isn’t it at least conceivable that Chinese authorities would lie about that? We are talking about an authoritarian, secretive government with all kinds of human-rights abuses and a long record of false statements. While the WHO team was in Wuhan, the Chinese government refused to turn over the raw personalized health data from 174 of the first COVID-19 cases to the World Health Organization investigators last month.

    If there’s absolutely nothing to suggest the Chinese government did anything wrong, why did they refuse to turn over the raw data?

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