National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said the coronavirus is “absolutely not” manmade but he could not rule out the idea that it escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, where the first known cases emerged.
“Whether [the coronavirus] could have been in some way isolated and studied in this laboratory in Wuhan, we have no way of knowing,” he told POLITICO on Wednesday.
What is clear, he said, is that “Nature created this virus, and has proven once again to be the most effective bioterrorist.”
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly suggested that the virus might have somehow emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — claims that the center’s director has called “pure fabrication.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed late last month that the government is investigating the pandemic’s origin, but said that there is no reason to believe the coronavirus was manmade or genetically modified.
Collins refused to comment on his agency’s recent — and controversial — decision to pull funding from researchers studying how coronaviruses spread from bats to people. In late April the NIH told the EcoHealth Alliance, whose collaborators included scientists at the Wuhan virology lab, that its project did not “align with the program goals and agency priorities.”
Prominent scientific societies and 77 Nobel laureates have asked the administration to investigate why the nonprofit group’s grant was terminated, alleging that the decision was made for political, rather than scientific, reasons. The NIH awards grants using a merit-based system in which researchers evaluate the work of their peers, and ending a grant early is unusual.
Collins, who had not previously commented publicly on the situation, told POLITICO that “the NIH cannot discuss individual grants.”
The agency chief, who is leading a public-private partnership called ACTIV to hunt for coronavirus vaccines and drugs, said that if “all goes perfectly,” a few million doses of vaccine could be available in October for high-risk groups — with doses available sometime next winter for the rest of the country.
Trump has repeatedly promised a vaccine by the end of the year, much faster than any has ever been developed for any condition.
If China develops a coronavirus vaccine before the U.S. does, Collins said he “seriously hopes” that any tensions between the countries “wouldn’t be a dominant factor” in determining whether the U.S. would have access to a Chinese-manufactured shot.
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