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A lab accident causing the COVID-19 pandemic was 'certainly possible,' top US biosafety expert admitted in emails early last year

A lab accident causing the COVID-19 pandemic was 'certainly possible,' top US biosafety expert admitted in emails early last year

A U.S. biosafety expert and associate of White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, with ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, acknowledged in emails last year that it was "certainly possible" COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab, while he publicly cast doubt on the theory.

In an April 2020 email exchange, retired University of Texas Medical Branch professor Dr. James LeDuc wrote to Philip Russell, the former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, that it was "certainly possible a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government.” These emails were published by U.S. Right to Know as part of a public records request made to UTMB.

LeDuc is a renowned expert on laboratory safety and the former director of Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch. The Galveston lab is a biosafety level 4 facility established in 2008 with federal grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health (NIAID/NIH). BSL-4 is the highest biosafety designation, reserved for labs that handle dangerous pathogens like the Ebola or Marburg viruses.

While LeDuc was the lab's director, he worked with China since at least 2013, when construction on the Wuhan lab began, and he has made several trips to Wuhan to train staff since at least 1986.

A 2017 email exchange between LeDuc and Fauci, the longtime director of NIAID, confirmed that UTMB collaborated with Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and trained researchers there in "practices in safety and security." LeDuc's email, which invites Fauci to a meeting with officials from Chinese BSL-4 labs, including the one at the Wuhan institute, suggests he is on friendly terms with the NIAID director, who himself is mired in controversy over his agency's support for risky coronavirus research in China. The emails were first reported by the National Pulse.

Like Fauci, LeDuc has publicly and privately expressed skepticism of speculation that research conducted at the Wuhan lab is connected to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the lab-leak hypothesis was first floated in early 2020, LeDuc contacted WIV Professor Yuan Zhiming, one of his colleagues in the field of biosafety, urging the Chinese scientist to "aggressively address these rumors and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation.”

Publicly, LeDuc was consulted by the media on the lab-leak hypothesis as an expert on laboratory safety.

“I certainly wouldn’t say that there isn’t a possibility for something to get released out of our laboratory or any other lab around the world,” LeDuc told the Galveston County Daily News in April 2020. “I can say there are redundant safety mechanisms in place both here, and certainly in Wuhan, that guard against that."

“But sometimes accidents happen,” he acknowledged.

While he never ruled out the possibility of a lab accident, he emphasized to the paper, "There is convincing evidence that the new virus was not the result of intentional genetic engineering and that it almost certainly originated from nature, given its high similarity to other known bat-associated coronaviruses."

Those comments reflect what LeDuc told Russell in his April 2020 email exchange. LeDuc flatly wrote, "I don't believe that the virus originated from the lab in Wuhan" and said he agreed with arguments that the virus came from nature. He also said that his lab had worked with top Wuhan Institute scientist Dr. Shi Zhengli, a famous virologist known as China's "bat woman" for her work on coronaviruses, who he called a "talented scientist and a charming person."

Russell, a physician, vaccine scientist, and retired U.S. Army major general who died in 2021 replied: "I have no doubt that Zheng Li Shi is a brilliant scientist and very charming. That does not rule out the possibility that one of the many bat coronaviruses isolated in the Wuhan lab infected a technician who walked out the door. No need for engineering the virus.

"The flimsiness of the epidemiology pointing to the wet market, the absence of bats in the market, the failure to identify an intermediate animal host, the extraordinary measures taken by the Chinese government, including persecution and probable killing of two brave physicians, to cover up the outbreak, the steps taken to silence the laboratory personnel,. the change in leadership of the lab, all point to the lab as the source of the outbreak."

“This reminds me of the efforts by Matt Meselson and many colleagues to coverup up the Sverdeslosk [Sverdlovsk] anthrax outbreak,” Russell continued. “They succeeded for many years aided and abetted by many in academia until Ken Alibek defected and the truth came out. I bought the wet market story for months but now am very skeptical of anything information coming from the Chinese government.”

In response, LeDuc conceded that a lab accident was "certainly possible" and that the Chinese government is not trustworthy.

"I sent a rather detailed plan to investigate the possibility that the lab might have been the source of the outbreak to Zhiming Yuan early in the event, but never heard back from him," LeDuc wrote. "It's good that folks are pressing the issue, but we need to strike a balance such that we are not in an adversarial situation."

To which Russell replied, "I admire your desire to avoid an adversarial situation but the seem to be impossible with the Chinese communists."

LeDuc did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than a year later in June 2021, after the lab-leak hypothesis gained mainstream credibility after being attacked by Fauci and others as a "conspiracy theory," LeDuc gave another interview to the Daily News saying there was no new scientific evidence that changed his opinion on the origins of the virus.

“I’m not aware of anything new,” he told the paper. "That’s the same answer I would have given you six months ago.”

Nevertheless, LeDuc called on governments and scientists to continue investigations into the origins of the pandemic.

“I think we need to keep looking at the facts, follow the science and keep pushing to identify it,” he said.

He identified reports that three Wuhan researchers were hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 in November 2019 as one of many reasons to investigate, but expressed doubt that the sick lab workers were significant.

“The fact that three people went to the hospital or contracted a respiratory disease in respiratory disease season, it’s intriguing, but it’s certainly not a smoking gun,” he said.

"The challenge is going to be getting good transparency from the Chinese government,” he added.

Indeed, the Chinese government has stonewalled investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. After one attempted investigation by the World Health Organization had its findings heavily criticized for placing too much trust in the words of Chinese officials, a second investigative team was commissioned to begin a renewed investigation into the origins of the virus.

However, some researchers are skeptical that the WHO can get China to cooperate, given that the communist government strongly denies that the coronavirus outbreak originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

As LeDuc himself acknowledged, Chinese officials at the Wuhan lab had an opportunity to be transparent when he sent Dr. Yuan several important questions about the lab-leak theory they could have answered in February 2020. He never got an answer.

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