Gottlieb: ‘The Side of the Ledger That Suggests’ COVID Came Out of a Lab ‘Has Continued to Expand’

By Melanie Arter | June 1, 2021 | 1:09pm EDT
This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (L) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 27, 2020. - Opened in 2018, the P4 lab conducts research on the world's most dangerous diseases and has been accused by some top US officials of being the source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (L) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 27, 2020. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the theory that COVID-19 came out of a lab in Wuhan, China, is growing while the other theory that it came “from a zoonotic source” has stalled.

“I think the challenge is that the side of the ledger that suggests that this could have come out of a lab has continued to expand, and a side of the ledger that suggests that this could have come from a zoonotic source, come out of nature, really hasn't budged,” Gottlieb said.

“And if anything, you can argue that that side of the ledger has contracted, because we've done an exhaustive search for the so-called intermediate host, the animal that could have been exposed to this virus before it spread to humans. We have not found such an animal,” he said.

“We've also fully disproven the market, the food market that was initially implicated in the original outbreak as the source of the outbreak, and so that side of the ledger probably has shrunken, and China could provide evidence that would be exculpatory here. They could provide the blood samples from those who worked in the lab in Wuhan. They've refused to do that,” the former FDA director said.

“They could provide the source strain, some of the original strains. They've refused to do that. They can provide access to some of the early samples that we could sequence. They could provide an inventory of what was in the lab, the Institute of Virology, the lab that has been implicated in a potential lab leak. They have refused to do that, and we know that that lab was poorly constructed, had poor controls. That was reported at the time that it was first opened,” he said.

“We know the lab was engaging in very high-risk research, including infecting transgenic animals, animals with fully human immune systems. We know they were working with SARS-like viruses that have never been disclosed before, and now we have new evidence that some lab workers became infected right at the time that this virus was believed to be first introduced. That's been publicly reported. So that side of the ledger has expanded,” Gottlieb said. 

“And I think that's why there is renewed focus on this. In terms of your final question, why this is important, I think if we assess that there is a probability or a possibility that this came out of a lab, it's going to affect how we respond to this,” he said.

“We're going to need to focus on trying to get better controls in this sort of high risk research going forward and get better controls over these BSL-4, these high security labs that conduct this research. Incidentally, China is not conducting this research in a BSL-4 lab. They were doing it in a lower security BSL-2 lab,” the former FDA commissioner said.

These times of lab leaks happen all the time, Gottlieb said. Even in the U.S. there were mishaps, and in China, the last six known outbreaks of SARS-1 came out of labs, “including the last known outbreak, which was a pretty extensive outbreak that China initially wouldn't disclose that it came out of lab.” 

“It was only disclosed finally by some journalists who were able to trace that outbreak back to a laboratory. So it's important to understand what the possibility is that this came out of a lab so we could 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.

Gottlieb said public health needs to be looked at “through the lens of national security.”

“This was an asymmetric harm to the United States. COVID hurt the U.S. a lot more than it hurt many other countries,” he said. 

"Traditionally, we've relied on international conventions and scientists working together, multilateral agreements to try to assess the risks and try to uncover these kinds of outbreaks. I think we also need to get better surveillance in place and use our tools of national security to help engage in that mission as well,” Gottlieb added.

He said he’s not sure whether it would have affected how we responded to COVID if it were known early on that COVID came from the Wuhan lab.

“Once this became epidemic in China and once it escaped China, it was going to behave the way it behaved. I'm not sure there's things we would have learned or gleaned by knowing that it came out of a lab and perhaps was manipulated or humanized in a lab. We could ascertain that this was pretty humanized by the time it started to spread in humans,” Gottlieb said.

“We may never really determine with precision whether or not this came out of a lab. I think what we're likely to end up with is an assessment, a probability, unless we get very lucky and we either find the intermediate host, we find a colony of civet cats or pangolins where this is epidemic, and it could have first spilled over into humans, or we have a whistleblower in China or regime change, which we're not going to have,” he said.

“I don't know that we're going to find out with certainty that this came out of a lab. I think we're going to ultimately come up with an assessment and a probability on whether this came out of a lab versus a zoonotic source, and it's going to take some more data to get a better overall assessment in terms of the probability that this could have come out of a lab, but we might get that information,” Gottlieb said.

When asked whether he thinks the Chinese know the answer to the question on whether it came from a lab leak, Gottlieb said, “They would know the answer to the question, because they would have blood samples from the workers in that lab. And that's the evidence that they haven't made public. 

“If, in fact, the blood samples show that a high prevalence of people in that lab have been exposed to this virus, that's pretty definitive proof that this coursed through that lab, and they would also have the samples from the time that they were first drawn, which was the time when they had those illnesses,” he said.

“There's no question that when they had an outbreak of an illness in that lab that they would have done routine blood sampling in that lab. That's just normal controls in a lab of that quality. So they would have that information,” the former FDA commissioner said.

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