Did former CDC director offer a ham sandwich theory of COVID-19? Maybe. Maybe not.

By Thomas Gaulkin | March 26, 2021

CDC director Robert Redfield CNN coronavirus interview Sanjay Gupta Former CDC director Robert Redfield spoke with CNN's Sanjay Gupta for an "autopsy" of the pandemic airing March 27. (CNN)

As Robert Redfield awoke Friday morning, he found himself transformed in his TV into a gigantic target of viral scorn.

The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted many expert eyebrows from their microscopes, telling CNN’s Sanjay Gupta he believes the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 originated in a lab in China. In clips CNN aired from an upcoming special this Sunday (which Gupta dubbed an “autopsy” of the pandemic), Redfield dismissed the possibility that the virus could have evolved sufficiently on its own to have “somehow jumped” quickly from bats to humans.

“I just don’t think this makes biological sense,” Redfield told Gupta, arguing it’s easier to conclude that the virus gained greater efficiency at infecting humans inside a lab.

Many infectious disease experts have expressed confidence that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease that was in fact transmitted from animals to humans, and insist there is a lack of evidence of a lab origin, accidental or otherwise. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told reporters Friday that Redfield’s comments were just “an opinion.”

Although Redfield acknowledged that other scientists had different analyses and science would eventually determine the origin of COVID-19, some of those other scientists came down more harshly on the former CDC director. Angela Rasmussen, a self-described “excessively direct virologist” affiliated with Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, mocked Redfield for apparently coining the term “zoonot,” a relatively innocuous misuse of the adjective “zoonotic” to describe diseases that transmit from animals to humans:

Jason Kindrachuk, an emerging virus specialist at the University of Manitoba, went even further with ad hominem attacks on Redfield’s argument against a bat-to-human theory:

 

There may be more conventionally scientific reasons to doubt Redfield’s reasoning. Some studies indicate that the novel coronavirus actually did evolve quickly on its own, outside of any lab, and that the virus’s infectiousness in humans is not particularly remarkable:

 

But some biologists and biosecurity experts have also argued that dismissal of the lab leak theory is premature, and that investigations led by the World Health Organization have not adequately addressed it. (Even Rasmussen has acknowledged that a lab leak was possible.) The danger of studying potentially pandemic pathogens in labs is not a new concern.

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulletin published an op-ed by then-Federation of American Scientists president Ali Nouri with the headline, “Let evidence, not talk radio, determine whether the outbreak started in a lab.” Between Redfield’s revelations on CNN and the backlash from his peers on social media, turning down the radio may not be enough.


As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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David GriffithsPatrick WooldridgeMalcolmJan GalkowskiStephen Parsons Recent comment authors
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David Griffiths
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David Griffiths

Here are three things that are not relevant to understanding the likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 accidentally escaped from one of the Wuhan labs: —Not relevant: The Chinese authorities saying that there is no record of the virus in any lab in China prior to the pandemic. The Chinese authorities also denied the fact that they placed a million Uyghur people in detention camps. Their denials about the virus are irrelevant in the absence of independent confirmation. —Not relevant: Virologists saying it is highly improbable that a virus could accidentally leak from a lab and cause a pandemic. Virologists are experts about… Read more »

Stephen Parsons
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Stephen Parsons

People will believe what they want to believe as Griffith`s response is a prime example of – politics (nationalism) has become intimately linked with the emergence of the pandemic and many are busy promoting an anti-Chinese line (if nothing else it acts as a good distraction from the lackadaisical, at best, way governments responded to the Covid-19 virus once it was declared a pandemic by WHO in March 2020).

David Griffiths
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David Griffiths

What I believe, Stephen Parsons, is that there is a reasonable possibility that the pandemic was caused by a lab-leak. I also believe that there is a reasonable possibility that the pandemic was caused by natural zoonosis. The evidence for both hypotheses is circumstantial. In the absence of direct evidence, both hypotheses should be investigated. A coronavirus pandemic from a lab-leak and a coronavirus pandemic from natural zoonosis are both very low probability events. But one of them happened. So both should be investigated. Now, maybe you think a pandemic caused by a lab-leak is the kind of thing that… Read more »

Malcolm
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Malcolm

Some interesting counters to your observations… We have identified over 400 coronaviruses in bats, basically bats and coronaviruses coexist. Sars1 jumped from bats to civets to humans in 2002/3 Mers jumped from bats to camels to humans in 2012 The current Sars2 pandemic most likely jumped from bats to pangolins to humans in 2020. Yes, a coronavirus found in bats closely resembles Sars2….. Plus of course the various outbreaks of H1N1….Spanish Flu in 1918, Bird Flu in 1996, Swine Flu in 2009. Not coronaviruses, but same kind of problem. Scientists have been warning of a likely pandemic since at least… Read more »

David Griffiths
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David Griffiths

You put forward a good argument for the pandemic being caused by a natural spillover. For millennia, pandemics have been caused by viruses moving from animal hosts to human beings. The current pandemic is consistent with what has happened throughout human history. I agree there’s a reasonable possibility that the pandemic was caused by natural zoonosis. But I also believe that there’s a reasonable possibility that the pandemic was caused by a lab leak. What I can’t put aside is that long before the pandemic, biosecurity experts warned that human error in biosafety labs might cause pandemics (The Bulletin reported… Read more »

Majora Gameng
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Majora Gameng

I’ll remain confused why The Bulletin insists on trying to fencesit on this despite the overwhelming consensus being “Uh, no guys, it didn’t come from a lab.” because it refers to itself as being concerned with credibility and scientific awareness and yet continues to ignore all of the evidence that the politically charged “Chinese lab “”””theory””””” is… well… nonsense?

At least when CNN does it it makes sense, it’s for money.

Charles Forsberg
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Charles Forsberg

There is massive U.S. resistance to considering an accident in the Chinese lab because it would raise questions about the safety and siting of U.S. level 4 biolabs. We have had accidents in our laboratories. If an air-borne virus that is infectious before people become sick leaks out, it will create a global pandemic before the local officials know of an accident. The combination of a large mega-city, mass transit and a global air transport network makes it impossible to stop such pandemics. If that was shown to have happen, it would shut down all Biolevel 4 facilities in the… Read more »

Jan Galkowski
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Whether or not we ever discover Patient Zero for SARS-CoV-2, the interpretation of origin matters a lot from a public health policy and prevention perspective. If it arose in a laboratory, effectively human-made, then the risk of zoonotic transfer is downplayed, as such pandemics only arise from “bad actors.” If it was zoonotic, then there’s nothing to say yet another virus will pop out with comparable effects. Origins can be zoonotic whether or not people believe SARS-CoV-2 arose in a lab or not. But the public does not think that way, and, in a representative democracy, is loathe to spend… Read more »

Patrick Wooldridge
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Patrick Wooldridge

Facts: 1) The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a BSL-4 facility working on bats and very close to the Wuhan Market. 2) Chinese authorities repeatedly delayed: a) initial reports of a novel virus, b) sharing the genome sequence, c) admitting independent virology experts, etc., all the while stockpiling PPE. 3) Reports from workers at the WIV indicate a pattern of accidents and poor security before the outbreak, while pictures from after WHO was allowed in show all brand-new equipment and very tight security. 4) The Chinese government is infamous for systematic denial, obfuscation, misdirection, revisionism and outright lies (backed by… Read more »