With the focus shifting again to a Wuhan, China, lab, Dr. Céline Gounder, a COVID-19 adviser to the Biden transition team, says it's important to find the pandemic's origins to prevent the next one.



All right, as we just heard, the idea that the coronavirus could've leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, was dismissed as a conspiracy theory by a lot of scientists a year ago. That has changed now. Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.


ANTHONY FAUCI: The historical basis for pandemics evolving naturally from an animal reservoir is extremely strong. And it's for that reason that we felt that something similar like this has a much higher likelihood. No one knows - not even I - 100% at this point, which is the reason why we are in favor of further investigation.

MARTIN: We've got Dr. Celine Gounder with us on the line. She's an infectious disease expert in New York City and recently served on the Biden-Harris transition team on their COVID-19 advisory board. Dr. Gounder, thanks for being here.

CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Why do you think the Biden administration and the scientific community are now willing to take the lab leak theory seriously where they weren't before?

GOUNDER: Well, I think Stephen Morris (ph) raised an important point, which is that some of this got conflated with conspiracy theories and China-bashing. But there was another point to make here, which is there was also conflation - confusion between this idea of a lab accident and intentionally engineering something in a lab and then that being accidentally or intentionally released. So, you know, I think what we've realized is that, you know, maybe a lab accident is certainly possible.

And the other thing that raised that concern is that we now know that back in November, there were three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who were working on coronaviruses and who were hospitalized with symptoms that could have been from COVID, could've been from the flu, could've been from something else. But we don't have enough information on those three cases. And that is something that needs to be investigated.

MARTIN: So speaking of which - I mean, that information about their history. But what other data would scientists need to assess the likelihood of a lab leak?

GOUNDER: Well, you would really want to be going through the safety protocols in the lab. You would want to be going through their lab records. What exactly were the experiments that they were doing? You know, every scientist keeps very careful, detailed logs of their work. You know, and then were there any other illnesses amongst the group? We have no knowledge of what testing was done on those three sick researchers. We don't know what laboratory testing, what radiology, you know, scans were done. Were any specimens saved that you could go back and see, was this COVID or was this something else? So there's really a lot that would need to be done to further suss this out.

MARTIN: So can any of that be known without China's cooperation?

GOUNDER: Well, that's the challenge, right? So they have to either cooperate - and we'd have to achieve that through diplomatic means. Or, you know, our intelligence community may have other means of trying to get to that information. But we really cannot get to a definitive answer without that information.

MARTIN: So why is the theory that COVID-19 likely came from a natural transmission, from animals to humans, why is it still the dominant one?

GOUNDER: Well, this is really, 99% of the time, the source of emerging infectious diseases. Whether you talk about HIV or Zika or Ebola, the original SARS, MERS - I mean, you could keep going and going. But all of these have been the result of zoonotic spillover, so spillover of viruses from animals into humans. And, you know, this is what we've seen with prior coronaviruses. So probabilistically, it's far more likely that this would be a spillover event as well.

MARTIN: Do you think it was a mistake not to take the lab leak theory seriously?

GOUNDER: I think we need to investigate every single possibility that is plausible. Even if it's less likely, this needs more investigation. And saying that this needs more investigation doesn't mean the virus leaked from a lab. But we need to investigate that and figure that out because it really does have implications for how we'll prevent the next pandemic.

MARTIN: The president wants urgency on this. But how does putting a 90-day deadline for the intelligence community to get an answer to this potentially affect the result?

GOUNDER: You know, I'm not sure that we're going to be able to get an answer in 90 days. I think, you know, if you look at some of the other things that would need to be done to also assess a potential spillover, that would mean, for example, testing blood bank samples that would go back to before December, November of 2019...


GOUNDER: ...To see if there was anything circulating previously. So there's a lot of work. I don't know if the 90 days is enough.

MARTIN: Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert in New York. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

GOUNDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.