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Leading scientist says that without a full investigation of lab leak theory, the world will face ‘covid-26 and covid-32’

Security personnel gather near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A prominent scientist on Sunday added his voice to the growing number of experts calling for a full investigation into the origins of covid-19, saying the future of public health is at stake.

“There’s going to be covid-26 and covid-32 unless we fully understand the origins of covid-19,” Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor University and a leading expert on the virus, said Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet The Press.” He said coming to firm conclusions about how the virus emerged was “absolutely essential” in preventing future pandemics.

New reports suggest that China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology was at the center of the outbreak, not animal-to-human transmission elsewhere in Wuhan, which was the long-prevalent opinion. President Joe Biden last week ordered a fresh 90-day intelligence review of the virus’s origins with the goal of examining the possibility that it accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab instead of being transmitted from bats or other animals to humans in a zoonotic transmission.

The White House wants a deeper understanding of how a virus that has killed about 600,000 Americans and 3.5 million people worldwide came into existence and has charged the CIA and other agencies with doing more to find out.

Hotez, however, said intelligence-gathering alone wasn’t enough.

“I’m personally of the opinion we’ve pushed intelligence as far as we can. What we need to do is an outbreak investigation,” he said, noting that ideally this would be a six- to 12-month operation in Wuhan, in Hubei province, with scientists on the ground collecting extensive samples and other forensic evidence.

Initially raised as a possibility by then-President Donald Trump and some Republicans on Capitol Hill but dismissed by Democrats and many experts, the lab-leak theory has gained currency in recent weeks. Many experts cite a World Health Organization report from earlier this year mostly dismissing the possibility as co-authored by Chinese scientists and unconvincing.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reported last week that a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report had found that three scientists from the lab were hospitalized for symptoms consistent with covid-19 as early as November 2019, before the coronavirus began spreading in China.

Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been sounding the call for a deeper inquiry.

“The American people deserve to know about the origins of covid-19,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said on the Senate floor last week before the passage of a bill requiring the declassification of certain covid-19 information. “We have to have answers to these questions,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and ensured harsh effects from the virus infection.

There may be growing financial pressure, as well. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on Sunday called for U.S. economic retribution if China doesn’t cooperate.

“My response to this whole thing is supply chain. We need to pull our supply chain out of the region,” McCaul said, citing a range of industries, including medical supplies and semiconductor chips.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “If we can pull these chains out of China, it will hurt them economically . . . and that would be very punitive.” He called Biden’s review “long overdue.”

Experts like Hotez say it would be extremely difficult to get facts about the virus’s origins without Chinese cooperation.

Some experts say they still believe it is very unlikely that the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19 could have come from a lab. But others have noted both the presence of the advanced lab in Wuhan and the lack of horseshoe bats in the city as factors for such a leak.

Former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb said Sunday that the lack of Chinese cooperation provided its own form of circumstantial evidence.

“China could provide evidence that would be exculpatory here,” he said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” noting blood samples from lab workers and source strains of the virus. “They have refused to do that.”

Gottlieb said that knowing conclusively whether the virus came from a lab would help inform future security decisions at such facilities worldwide. “It’s important to understand what the possibility is that this came out of lab so we can focus more international attention on trying to get better inventories around these labs, what they’re doing, better security, make sure they’re properly built,” he said.

The covid inquiry has been delicate for the Biden administration, which needs to balance a desire for scientific truth with concerns about stoking violence against Asian Americans, which has registered an alarming rise since the pandemic’s outbreak.

The White House also must head off geopolitical tensions. China has been pushing back against the growing U.S. call for more transparency.

“The U.S. doesn’t care about facts or truth at all, neither is it interested in a serious scientific study on the origins,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week, referencing Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army research laboratory in Maryland. Chinese state media have suggested without evidence that Fort Detrick could be the source of the outbreak. “Its only aim is to use the pandemic for stigmatization and political manipulation to shift the blame.”

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The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang contributed to this report.

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