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expert reaction to media reports of comments made by FBI Director suggesting he believes SARS-CoV-2 most likely originated in a Chinese government-controlled lab

FBI director Christopher Wray weighed in on the debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 during his appearance on Fox News.


Prof Alice Hughes, Group Leader Biodiversity Analytics of Terrestrial Ecosystems (BAT) group, University of Hong Kong, said:

Comments on reports of the statements made by FBI director Christopher Wray:

“My comments are based on media reports of comments made by FBI chief Christopher Wray.  I have not seen a report from the FBI.

“Once again, as earlier in the week with the US Energy Department comments, there does not seem to be any new evidence or data provided here.  There has been no new release of data from China for over a year, so there is nothing new being reported here.

“The state of the science remains the same, new analysis of existing data, including our own continues to lend weight to a zoonotic source as the likely origin of the pandemic.  The comments appear not to be based on new evidence, and remains the weaker of the two main hypothesis of the origin of the virus.”

Comments on evidence around the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in general:

“What much of the world does not understand is that China operates in a different way.  In 2020 we were encouraged to get more data on SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife (especially bats) from the field – there were at least 5 independent teams doing bat work in Yunnan before the end of April in 2020 and other teams across China, and swabs from the Huanan market had already been found to be full of SARS-CoV-2.  This ground work stopped when it was perceived that China was being accused as an origin from a leak.  In this situation most countries would have incentivised scientists to go and collect more field-data to highlight that coronaviruses are irrefutably circulating in bats, and other wildlife, but instead China’s narrative seemed shifted to wanting it to have spilled over elsewhere – and our work (the collection of new data from wildlife) became virtually impossible, I was told bat work was not allowed in Yunnan.  In Yunnan only Chinese scientists were able to go and collect the data in protected areas.  Within China accusations against Fort Detrick were raised, and then some scientists from within China tried to publish the narrative they thought was wanted, that Chinese bats do not carry coronaviruses (despite about a decade of work showing they do and labs built to work on it).

“Sometimes people react with precaution or in a risk-averse way even if they have nothing to hide. This is what people do not understand about China – what looks like they are covering something up can often be they want to control the narrative and will try to prevent the potential for any issue, which might include blocking the collection of data; even when there might be nothing there.  However, a vacuum will be filled, and if there is not information people will naturally create theories, and when there is no data, there is no way to support or refute those theories.

“Whilst we cannot discount a leak of a zoonotic virus (there is no evidence that SARS-CoV2 is the result of gain-of-function; the features in it are found in naturally circulating viruses in wildlife) there is no defining evidence which supports this more than a natural outbreak, like the SARS virus before it.  Unfortunately the politics has meant the science is harder, and we are unlikely to ever resolve it beyond a point we are now.  The wildlife that carry closer viruses than those already seen may already be dead.

“It is important to note that no high confidence report has been released, and unless there is surprising data within the databases (again there is no evidence to date of this – if it were known then there would be more certainty in the various ministry and agency reports) then there will be no further data, as such data will have been published or will no longer exist (even if it was not controversial data, it may have been destroyed as a precaution against potential challenges – despite the fact that creating a vacuum will only create doubt and mistrust).

“What matters now is preventing future epidemics, which requires both reducing the chance of spillover from wildlife, and improving lab biosecurity so there can be no doubt for future spillovers – which will happen from wildlife, livestock and possibly lab conditions, unless we learn how to reduce all risks.”


Dr Jonathan Stoye, Senior Group Leader and Head of the Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute, said:

“As far as I can make out, no new evidence has been released to support the FBI statement.  In the absence of any such information I am not inclined to change my view that the available evidence supports a natural origin for the COVID pandemic.

“Finger-pointing without providing evidence has been very unhelpful, greatly complicating international efforts to provide a definitive description of the events leading to the first human infections.”



Declared interests

Prof Alice Hughes: “No COI.  Some of my work has been on bats and covid in China, and until the end of 2021 I was working in Yunnan (as I had been since 2013).  These are my comments based on my work and that of various collaborators, as well as my experiences within China and how things operate within China.”

Dr Jonathan Stoye: “No competing interests.”




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