Wuhan lab-leak scenario could be complicated to prove, even after regaining credibility

Now that investigators are taking an honest look at the possibility that the coronavirus could have leaked out of a laboratory in China’s city of Wuhan, investigators and intelligence agencies still have an uphill battle as they look to identify the outbreak’s origins.

The lab-leak theory has gained credibility in the U.S. and abroad in the past few weeks after a bombshell Wall Street Journal report revealed that three researchers at a Wuhan virology lab had displayed COVID-19 symptoms in late 2019 – well before the pandemic. But it remains unproven, as do competing hypotheses about how the virus first came to infect a human.

“We don’t know that’s what’s happened, but a lot of data have probably been destroyed or made to disappear so it’s going to be difficult to prove definitely the case for a ‘gain-of-function chimera’ being the cause of the pandemic,” Richard Dearlove, the former head of the UK’s MI6 intelligence agency, told the Telegraph this week. 

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)

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) (AP)

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Gain-of-function research is controversial and involves manipulating and strengthening viruses.

However, whether or not there’s any physical evidence on hand may not matter.

“We’re not going to go in there and see the evidence anyway, doesn’t matter if it was there, if it wasn’t there,” former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman, a Fox News contributor, said Thursday. “The Chinese aren’t going to give us the evidence, but all that matters is there was evidence at one time.”

Intelligence gatherers, he said, will have to try and narrow down the possibilities, then decide whether each of them has a low, medium or high probability.

“We often don’t get forensic evidence and actually go visit a place,” he said. “We may have to get it from the intelligence we collect from people who are in the know and are gonna tell us what they saw and didn’t see.”

For example, he said, in Chernobyl, the U.S. didn’t have investigators on the ground. But the truth came out later.

The U.S. has a consulate in Wuhan, Hoffman noted, and the institute of virology was built by the French. Numerous Western officials have been inside the facility. 

“What is their opinion?” he posited. “What were the safety protocols like? Good or bad? What do they think about what might have happened or not happened? There’s a lot of information you can gather.”

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Even without conclusive evidence, with enough details and pressure, the developed world can leverage China into at least increasing its lab safety protocols to lessen the probability of future lab leaks, Hoffman said – although we may never know the origin of COVID-19 conclusively.

Earlier Thursday, former State Department officials confirmed to Fox News that near the start of the pandemic, an investigation into the lab-leak theory had been discouraged amid fear it would bring attention to U.S. funding of controversial gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Whatever the virus’ genesis, it’s clear that it emerged in Wuhan, where researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were actively studying coronavirus strains at the time.

But the global scientific community was quick to reject a lab-leak theory, and critics of former President Donald Trump, who spoke in support of the possibility, dismissed it as “debunked” more than a year ago.

The lab-leak hypothesis gained more credibility when President Biden said U.S. intelligence had included it as one of “two likely scenarios” that could have led to the outbreak.

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The other is that it leapt to humans from animals – likely a bat. So far, researchers have not found the so-called intermediary animal that the virus could have leapt from into humans in Wuhan.

The president announced a 90-day timeline for federal investigators to finalize a report.

Fox News’ Rich Edson and Adam Shaw contributed to this report.

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