Dr. Anthony Fauci believes that it is “entirely conceivable” that COVID-19 originated from a virus that killed three miners after a visit to a bat-infested cave in China in 2012.
The coronavirus that killed the miners in 2012 is the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. On Thursday, Fauci called for China to release the medical records of the miners, as well as the records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) researchers who the Wall Street Journal reported last month fell ill with an unknown COVID-like illness in November 2019.
“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019,” Fauci told the Financial Times. “Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with? … The same with the miners who got ill years ago . . . What do the medical records of those people say?”
“Was there [a] virus in those people?” he added. “What was it? It is entirely conceivable that the origins of Sars-Cov-2 was in that cave and either started spreading naturally or went through the lab.”
Fauci, President Joe Biden‘s chief medical adviser and the longstanding director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), went on to say that he still does not believe the virus escaping from a lab is the most plausible explanation for the emergence of COVID-19.
“I have always felt that the overwhelming likelihood, given the experience we have had with Sars, Mers, Ebola, HIV, bird flu, the swine flu pandemic of 2009, was that the virus jumped species,” Fauci said. “But we need to keep on investigating until a possibility is proven.”
Although investigations are ongoing and the origins of the virus remain unclear, the lab leak theory has gained traction in recent weeks despite some previously dismissing it as a conspiracy theory. Confirmation that the WIV lab workers were infected with COVID-19 well before the first known cases would certainly bolster the likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the lab.
Samples from four of the six Chinese miners who were sickened after their 2012 cave visit were tested for SARS-CoV-2 in 2020 and found to be negative. However, it is possible that the miners were infected with a related virus. RaTG13, the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2, was one of many coronaviruses Chinese researchers later discovered in the cave.
Knowledge that the miners died of a of SARS-like illness might not have come to light if not for the work of a group of online researchers calling themselves DRASTIC, or the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, as previously reported by Newsweek.
Although WIV Director Shi Zhengli claimed that the men died due to a fungus from the cave, the group discovered that the miners had tested positive for a SARS-like antibodies after an extensive search of a Chinese database of academic journals.
Fauci’s call for China to release the medical records immediately inspired backlash from his critics. Jason Miller, former President Donald Trump‘s adviser and spokesman, asked why Fauci had not “called for this previously” in a tweet alongside a link to the Financial Times article.
An MSNBC interview Fauci took part in on the same day, where he said that it was “obviously in China’s best interest” to discover the origin of COVID-19, also resulted in backlash. Critics pointed out that if the virus were found to have escaped from WIV, China would likely benefit by obscuring its origins instead.
Newsweek reached out to NIAID for comment.