Where did COVID-19 come from? University of Utah virologist on ‘lab leak’ theory

Evolutionary biologist says there’s no evidence coronavirus escaped from Wuhan lab.

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) Security personnel 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. A new report casts doubt on the theory that the COVID-19 virus originated at the Wuhan lab.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly originated from a wild animal and not from a laboratory leak, according to a new report from nearly two dozen leading virus experts from around the globe, including a virologist at the University of Utah.

Dr. Steven Goldstein is an evolutionary biologist. He says we don’t know for certain where the virus originated, but given the current information, the most likely scenario is the pandemic began at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

“If you look at where the first cases in Wuhan were, there’s a really striking concentration of those cases starting in the neighborhoods surrounding this market and spreading outward from there. Similarly, the excess deaths observed in Wuhan begin in the part of the city that includes that market and then spread to other parts of the city,” Goldstein said.

It’s not just that geographic evidence that has convinced Goldstein. He says those markets were selling animals that are susceptible to carrying the virus, which he says Chinese authorities tried to cover up.

“We’ve got this geographic association between the animal market and the earlier cases. We’ve got the right animal to spread this virus to humans in the animal market. Those are two of the big lines of evidence we point to,” Goldstein said.

It seems natural to wonder if the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a coronavirus research laboratory. That hypothesis has gained some prominence lately. The Wall Street Journal reported in May on U.S. intelligence reports about how several workers at the virology lab became sick with symptoms “consistent with both COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses.”

The World Health Organization is calling for a thorough investigation of the theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a lab, but Chinese authorities are pushing back against additional scrutiny of the virus’ origins.

Closer to home, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has frequently made arguments about the viability of the “lab leak” theory. He’s slammed Democrats for not holding a hearing on the virus’ origins and defended former President Donald Trump’s early contention the virus escaped from a lab. Stewart has also proposed legislation to bar U.S. funding of so-called “gain-of-function” research in foreign countries, something Dr. Anthony Fauci has vehemently denied was taking place at the Wuhan lab.

Goldstein says there’s simply no evidence the virus was engineered in a lab. He also disputes the theory that researchers at the Wuhan lab were studying it and it escaped. He says the virus, or even a virus very close to COVID-19, was not known to scientists before the pandemic.

“There’s no real reason to put any weight on the possibility of a lab leak right now. We’ve got nothing that points to the lab other than suspicion and innuendo based on the idea of not trusting China. Nobody should trust the Chinese government, but we just take a critical look at the evidence that is available and saying what is most likely,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein admits there’s no evidence that China is not covering up evidence that the virus escaped from the lab.

“I can’t prove they’re not. I can prove they covered up what animals were for sale in the market, and that should tell us something,” Goldstein said.

Discovering the origin of the virus is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but not to prove which theory was ultimately right. Goldstein stresses we need to understand where it came from so we can be prepared to fight a similar outbreak should it occur in the future.

“If this came from an animal in a live animal market, this is the second time it’s happened in 20 years. We got lucky the first time in that there were only 8,000 cases and 800 deaths,” Goldstein explained, referring to the SARS CoV-1 virus, which emerged from China in 2003.

“If we don’t figure out how this happened and generate the political will to eliminate the situations that allow it to happen, then it’s going to keep happening,” Goldstein said.