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Debate resurfaces over origins of novel coronavirus

From the moment the novel coronavirus was identified, there were questions about its origin. This week, reports suggest U.S. diplomats are concerned about a lab in Wuhan, China -- the city where the outbreak began. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Dr. Luciana Borio, who served on the National Security Council under President Trump, about what scientists do and don’t know about this deadly virus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From the moment COVID-19 began to spread, there were questions about its origin.

    This week, there have been reports U.S. diplomats are concerned about a lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the outbreak began.

    Nick Schifrin examines what the U.S. knows, and doesn't know, about how coronavirus originally spread.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today in Wuhan, the markets sell live animals. The shopkeepers insist their product is clean and had nothing to do with the COVID-19 outbreak.

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to agree with the shopkeepers and raised on FOX News last night another source.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    We know that this virus originated in Wuhan, China. We know that there is that Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was. There's still lots to learn.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Wuhan Institute of Virology's Web site includes these photos showing off its technology. U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they have long been concerned about lab security. And they consider the possibility that COVID-19 was accidentally released by a lab employee who was working with animals that carry coronaviruses.

  • President Donald Trump:

    More and more, we're hearing the story. We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the intelligence community has not concluded for sure that's what happened. U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" it's still possible the market was the source.

  • Secretary Mark Esper:

    The results are inconclusive, if you will.

  • General Mark Milley:

    We have had a lot of intelligence, take a hard look at that. And I would just say at this point it's inconclusive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last month, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed the us military for spreading the virus. Chinese media have even blamed Italy.

    Today, spokesman Zhao Lijian said it's too early to know the source, but denied it was the lab.

  • Zhao Lijian (through translator):

    This is a scientific issue which should be studied by scientists and medical experts. Many well-known medical experts in the world also believe that claims of the so-called laboratory leaks have no scientific basis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for more on this, we turn to Dr. Luciana Borio.

    She served on the National Security Council staff as the director of medical and biodefense preparedness policy during the first two years of the Trump administration. She's now a vice president at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that funds technologies the intelligence community is interested in.

    Dr. Borio, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Those two scenarios I just laid out, some kind of accidental release from a lab in Wuhan and a possible release in the nearby wet market, are either of those still possible?

  • Luciana Borio:

    That's right, Nick.

    So, the national biodefense strategy that was signed by President Trump in 2018 contemplates three general categories of biological threats, the deliberate threats, an accident from a lab, exposure or release, and naturally occurring exposure.

    We don't believe that the strain has any features that it was a deliberate event at all, really. So, it's a natural strain.

    Now, the question about whether the original human exposure that led to the pandemic initially occurred in a laboratory setting or a wet market or something like that is going to be very difficult to ascertain.

    And we don't…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How would you — sorry to interrupt you.

    How would you ascertain that, if it is so difficult? What information would you need?

  • Luciana Borio:

    That's right.

    So it might not be possible just through the scientific means and analysis of the strain. It may need some other type of investigation that is being taken — undertaken by the intelligence community to see what other information may have been available with respect to communications, for example, around the time.

    But it may be very difficult. And we know that biological threats in general can be very difficult to attribute in a potential source.

    But, you know, there's — again, either way, what we have to remember today is that we have a pandemic on our hands, and the most important thing to focus on right now is to contain it. There will be a time when we're going to be able to go back and say, what happened?

    And I have to say that there's more to do globally to minimize human exposure to wildlife in those wet markets, because, clearly, they pose a threat to our security. And there's also more that we have to do to be able to make sure that experimentations with pathogens of pandemic potential, like coronaviruses, are done in a way that meet very stringent biological safety standards.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, obviously, there have been questions by U.S. officials about the safety standards within these labs, as well as concerns that China isn't closing the wet markets.

    Also among the U.S. concerns is the original virus, the original genome. When it comes to actually finding out what happened, how important is it that China share information that it has from patients, presumably from as early as December?

  • Luciana Borio:

    Yes, so the more information scientists have, the more they will be able to understand this virus.

    You know, there's a lot of work that was done early on, when a sequence was posed. It allowed the development of diagnostic tests. Having the virus in the right hands in the right labs can help facilitate product development.

    So, it's very critical to information — to share information about something that really impacts the entire world, right, impacts everybody. And we have to be able to work together to be able to contain it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And lastly, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, your last point, we have to work together to contain it.

    How important is it, at the end of the day, to actually know the origin of COVID-19?

  • Luciana Borio:

    The most important thing that we have to do is to be able to stabilize and restore our economic security and our health security.

    So that's going to be the most important thing. We can't lose focus on that. We may or may not be able to ascertain the origins. And, you know, the important thing is that we contain this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Luciana Borio, thank you very much.

  • Luciana Borio:

    My pleasure.

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