On May 26, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered intelligence agencies to produce a report within 90 days on the origins of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That order followed weeks of increasingly intense media coverage of the hypothesis that the virus was released from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the city that recorded the first cases of COVID-19. But there is no new evidence supporting the lab-leak theory, and few virologists say that a lab leak is a more plausible origin than transmission of the virus from animals to humans. So, what do we actually know about where the virus came from?

According to Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, previously at Georgetown University and Columbia University, there is more evidence that the virus jumped from animals to humans outside a laboratory, but there’s no conclusive proof. Indeed, we might never find a definitive answer to the question of where the virus came from. As Rasmussen sees it, that’s fine—the origin of the virus is far less important than improving international emergency preparedness, biosafety standards, and vaccinating the world’s population. This is the first in a two-part conversation with Rasmussen about the lab-leak theory; you can read the second, on the media coverage of the idea, here.


Michael Bluhm: What is the evidence for the possible origins of the virus?

Angela Rasmussen: The WHO mission laid out [in March] four potential origin scenarios. One is the idea that the virus was imported into China from elsewhere, either in frozen food or on the packaging of frozen food. There are political reasons for giving that credibility. It’s been promoted by a lot of scientists within China. But almost everybody in the larger international community agrees that’s very, very unlikely.

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