(CNSNews.com) – As the case for the “lab leak” theory for the source of the coronavirus outbreak slowly builds, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), among the first voices to raise the issue, called again Monday for an independent probe into the origins of COVID-19.
“The lab-leak hypothesis was always reasonable, but reporters & activists in white lab coats nonetheless spent the better part of a year denouncing it as a ‘conspiracy theory,’” Cotton tweeted – paraphrasing points he made in an earlier Fox News op-ed.
“They were wrong. But that’s not what’s most important now. What’s important is truth & accountability.”
“The United States & the world must demand a full, impartial investigation into COVID-19 origins, with a special focus on the Wuhan labs,” Cotton said.
Long dismissed by many experts and media outlets as a “debunked” distraction, the notion that the virus may have accidentally escaped from a laboratory in the outbreak epicenter city of Wuhan has been gaining ground.
CNSNews.com reported as early as February 19 last year on questions surrounding the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located less than nine miles away from the seafood market that was first thought to be the likeliest source of the virus’ jump from animal to human.
Coronaviruses studied at WIV included one named RaTG13, mapped after being collected from the feces of horseshoe bats in a cave in China’s Yunnan province in 2013.
WIV researchers themselves reported early last year that COVID-19 shared 96 percent genome sequence identity with RaTG13.
(Just a few hundred yards away from the seafood market is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, or WHCDC. In February 2020, two Chinese scientists posted a paper on an online research hub concluding that the coronavirus “probably originated” from bats being kept for research at the WHCDC, and called for a tightening of safety procedures. The study was later taken down, although archived copies are still online.)
In-mid February last year, Cotton told Fox News that amid the focus on the market, “we also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level-4 super laboratory [WIV] that researches human infectious diseases.”
“Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” he said. “And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.”
In May last year, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that while the intelligence community was continuing to probe the issue, “there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” He called on China to allow outside experts in.
Through last year, amid deepening tensions between the U.S. and China, accusations and denials continued to fly. As voices like Pompeo’s and Cotton’s attracted scrutiny, critics at times conflated two theories – that the virus was deliberately manufactured, perhaps as a bioweapon; and that a virus being studied in a lab for legitimate purposes may have accidental leaked into the community.
“Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins,” ran a New York Times headline after Cotton’s February 2020 Fox News interview. “The conspiracy theory lacks evidence and has been dismissed by scientists,” the Times said.
“Tom Cotton is playing a dangerous game with his coronavirus speculation,” was CNN’s Chris Cillizza’s take, while a Washington Post headline declared, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”
Days before the end of the Trump administration, Pompeo’s State Department said that while the U.S. government did not know exactly how the outbreak began, the WIV deserved greater scrutiny.
It said it had “reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
In February, a long-delayed visit to Wuhan by a WHO-convened team of international and Chinese experts ended with the conclusion that the lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely.”
After the Biden administration said it was withholding judgment on that assessment, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in late March that all hypotheses – including the lab-leak theory – “remain on the table” and need further investigation.
This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to “a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report,” three researchers at WIV had fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019.
Cotton said Monday that both the WIV and WHCDC “need to open their doors & databases for a full audit of their research – especially dangerous gain-of-function research. The CCP needs to stop obstructing investigators, destroying evidence, and telling ridiculous lies.”
(“Gain-of-function” research is designed to increase the infectiousness or virulence of a pathogen, as a way to boost pandemic preparedness.)
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday reports about WIV researchers having fallen ill in November 2019 were “totally untrue.”
He told a ministry press briefing that the institute says it was not “exposed to COVID-19 before December 30, 2019, and a “zero infection’ record is kept among its staff and graduate students so far.”
Zhao then brought up the issue of Fort Detrick, referring again to unsubstantiated claims that the outbreak could be linked to a temporary suspension of research at the U.S. Army medical research facility in Maryland in the summer of 2019.
“What is the real purpose for the U.S. to continue to play up the so-called lab leak theory?” he asked. “Does it really care about the origin-tracing of the virus or just want to divert attention?”
Zhao is the ministry spokesman who used his Twitter feed in March 2020 to promote a conspiracy theory accusing the U.S. Army of introducing the coronavirus to Wuhan in the fall of 2019.
NYT Headline (Since Changed) Says Wuhan Lab Theory Has Been ‘Debunked.’ It Hasn’t Been (Mar. 29. 2021)
‘Jury Is Still Out’: US Withholding Judgment After WHO Says COVID Did Not Leak From Wuhan Lab (Feb. 10, 2021)As Experts Probing Virus Origin Quarantine in Wuhan, Pompeo Calls Again For Lab Scrutiny (Jan. 18, 2021)Pompeo: ‘Enormous Evidence’ Coronavirus Came From Wuhan Lab; China Must Allow Experts In (May 4, 2020)
Questions Swirl About Source of China’s Coronavirus Outbreak (Feb. 19, 2020)