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Did COVID-19 Leak From A Lab? A Reporter Investigates — And Finds Roadblocks

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In order to prevent another disaster pandemic, it would be helpful to know with greater certainty how this one started. Many of us assumed that was a settled issue. The virus jumped from an animal to a human, and it spread. The theory that the virus had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, seemed to have been dismissed as an explanation advocated by Trump and his allies to blame China for what Trump liked to call the China virus. But last month, President Biden announced he asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to examine whether COVID-19 emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. Answering that question is also one of the goals of the COVID Commission Planning Group, a nonpartisan group directed by Philip Zelikow, who also directed the 9/11 Commission.

This week, world leaders at the G-7 summit called for a new investigation into the origins of the virus. My guest, journalist Katherine Eban, has been leading her own investigation into the lab leak theory and whether it's credible. She says, when Trump floated the lab leak hypothesis last April, his divisiveness and lack of credibility made the lab leak theory largely off-limits. She reports that those who pushed for transparency say toxic politics and hidden agendas kept us in the dark. But now that Trump is out of office, she says it should be possible to reject his xenophobic agenda and still ask, why did the outbreak begin in the city with a lab housing one of the world's most extensive collections of bad viruses and doing some of the most aggressive research?

Eban's article, "The Lab-Leak Theory," is now on the Vanity Fair website and will be in a subsequent issue of the print magazine. She spent months investigating the story, conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes and emails. Eban as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She previously joined us to discuss her book, "Bottle Of Lies," about fraud in the generic drug industry.

Katherine Eban, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you start the story? What made you think that the lab leak theory had any credibility?

KATHERINE EBAN: So my editor and I were just, you know, putting our heads together and talking about now that COVID-19, at least in the U.S., was coming under some control, what were the big remaining questions of the pandemic? And one of the big remaining questions has been its origin, you know, not because of conspiracy theories, which we were intent on unpacking, but because a host animal has not been found that would support a zoonotic origin. And because of Chinese government suppression and lack of transparency, questions have not been put to rest over whether this could possibly be a lab-originated virus.

And I coupled that with the fact that the World Health Organization, on a report that it had partnered with experts on, put out this document about a couple of months ago at this point, basically saying there's no support for the lab leak theory. And the director of the World Health Organization himself said, actually, that theory is still on the table, and we don't really think that this report got to the bottom of it. So taken all of that together, it seemed to me ripe for a deep dive to look at, what are the credible questions that have not yet been answered around a possible lab leak origin?

GROSS: You write, there's reason to doubt the lab leak hypothesis, but for most of the past year, the lab leak scenario was treated not simply as unlikely or even inaccurate, but as morally out of bounds. Would you explain?

EBAN: Yeah. So the the possible hypothesis that this had originated in a laboratory became completely entangled in Trumpian politics. So in April 2020, Trump came out pretty prematurely, essentially contradicted his own intelligence agencies and put forward the idea of a lab leak. And this was from the same president, of course, who was making racist slurs against Asians and calling this the Kung Flu and had contributed to this terrible rise in violence against Asians and, here in this country, Asian Americans. So the fact that he put that out there seemed to sort of brand it as a conspiracy theory and created a kind of antibody response within the government, as one of my sources put it, you know, where people felt they were absolutely determined to fight against what they saw as a conspiracy of this magnitude.

GROSS: So let's lay out what the two main theories are. Theory one is that it jumped - the virus jumped from an animal like a bat to a human. Tell us a little bit about the scientific basis of that theory and a little bit about what the evidence is that that might be what happened.

EBAN: Sure. So, you know, as we know, this has been the trajectory of previous viral outbreaks. So, for example, the SARS outbreak in 2002 has been linked to bats as these reservoirs for this virus. And MERS as well has been linked to an animal host. And that was in the Middle East. And even though we don't have a identified host for Ebola, it's believed to have a bat origin. So it is absolutely within the sort of tradition of these viruses to have had an animal reservoir and possibly one that jumped from an initial host animal to an intermediate animal to humans.

So, you know, it, in a way, appeared to be the most likely scientific scenario for the outbreak. But that said, now months have gone on, and there is no animal host identified despite a massive wildlife sampling effort. So I believe that the Chinese government has sampled something like close to 80,000 different wildlife samples to try to identify a host animal and has not been able to do so yet.

GROSS: So tell us about the lab leak theory and the lab in question in this theory.

EBAN: So first, let me say that the lab leak theory is not a unitary theory. It ranges all the way from, could researchers who had gone on bat sampling missions to these remote bat caves in Yunnan province picked up a sample that contained this virus and became infected in the field or possibly brought it back to a lab? And that could have triggered an outbreak. Or it could have been a completely accidental release of a strain that was in possession of a lab. Or it could have been the product of risky research, which we can talk about, which was potentially manipulating the natural infectiousness of a sample to see if it could potentially become more infectious to humans. And then it ranges all the way to a much more conspiratorial view that this was somehow a Chinese bioweapons program gone awry. Now, in discussion of all these different scenarios, the laboratory that keeps coming up is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was about 7 miles away from the first identified spot that was believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak, which is the Huanan Seafood Market.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is China's foremost coronavirus research facility. It contains one of the world's largest repository of bat samples and has a database of about 22,000 viral samples, which was taken offline just prior to the pandemic. And we can talk about that in a little bit. But it was in that laboratory that they were performing research called gain-of-function research to manipulate pathogens as a way of assessing the risk of whether they could cross over to infect humans.

GROSS: And some scientists say, well, maybe it's no coincidence that the pandemic seemed to start, you know, just a few miles away from this lab.

EBAN: Well, that's right. So this is one of the central mysteries of this SARS-CoV-2 outbreak that needs to be unpacked, which is, you know, how, in the dead of winter in central China in a city that doesn't have bats, at a time when bats would likely be hibernating, would you have an outbreak like this? What explains that? Now, two Chinese scientists looking at this fact pattern early on posted a pre-print paper saying, how did this happen? And they say, well, we looked around the area, and there are these two laboratories, which is - one is run by the Chinese equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is right near the Huanan Seafood Market. The other one is this Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is about 7 miles away.

GROSS: I think this might be a good time to take a break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katherine Eban. Her new article, "The Lab-Leak Theory," is now online at the Vanity Fair website, where she's a contributing editor. It will be published in the subsequent issue of the actual print magazine. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY SONG, "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with investigative journalist Katherine Eban. Her new article in Vanity Fair called "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight To Uncover COVID-19's Origins" is now online at the Vanity Fair website.

You report that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is conducting these gain-of-function experiments, which are very controversial. Can you explain a little bit more about why they're controversial and why one of the theories is that they might have, you know, contributed to the start of the pandemic?

EBAN: Sure. So gain-of-function research is something that has divided the virology community for years. In 2011, a virologist named Ron Fauchier basically manipulated an avian flu pathogen and created what he declared was, you know, the most infectious virus that's ever been known. That kind of research is called gain of function, where you're essentially manipulating a pathogen to see if you can increase its transmissibility to humans. Well, why would you do that research? Supporters claim that essentially all of virology is doing gain-of-function research. Viruses gain functions and lose functions all the time - and that you want to do this kind of research to gauge the risks out there. And it also helps to accelerate vaccine production. But there are critics who say, why would you go and take a pathogen from the middle of nowhere, bring it back to a lab in a crowded urban area and try to make it more infectious, potentially running the risk of unleashing it into the human community? And as - one scientist likened it to looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.

GROSS: Right. So you need a lot of safety protocols to conduct this research safely. What are the protocols like at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

EBAN: So the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had a wide range. Some of it takes place in what's called a BSL-4 laboratory. And if you've seen the images of the lead coronavirus researcher there, Shi Zhengli, she's often pictured in a - what looks like a spacesuit with independent oxygen. So you have, you know, independent airflow, pressurized rooms. There are a lot of safety protocols in place for a BSL-4 lab, which works on the world's most infectious pathogens.

But the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was also conducted under much lower safety protocols, for example, a BSL-2 laboratory, which some people have likened to basically the controls of an American dentist's office. And the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working on live SARS-like viruses in BSL-2 labs. Now, it's interesting to note that about a month after the real onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government announced an overhaul of safety protocols at labs doing this kind of research. Why then? It's a reasonable question to ask.

GROSS: So in February of last year, The Lancet, which is a very respected British medical journal, published a statement signed by 27 scientists rejecting the lab-leak theory. What was this statement, and what was its impact?

EBAN: So the statement was essentially saying the people who are raising the question of a lab leak are trafficking in conspiracy theories. And it said, we support, you know, our Chinese colleagues, these researchers and scientists who have been candid and transparent. And then these scientists said, you know, we have no competing interests, no conflict of interest here. That was a very powerful statement in the scientific world. To basically put scientists on notice, you bring up the lab-leak theory, and you are doing the work of conspiracy theorists. It really had a chilling effect.

You know, the question that I became interested in - what was its impact on credible people who saw reason to doubt? You know, they had questions that they wanted to ask and felt that they couldn't. So as one of the characters I write about, Gilles Demaneuf, said, it was like it was nailed on the church door. It became the orthodoxy of how to discuss COVID origins.

GROSS: But you found that there was a possible conflict of interest in the originator of this letter. Tell us about that.

EBAN: It's rather complicated. But as it turns out, the person who organized that letter, named Peter Daszak, who is president of an organization called EcoHealth Alliance, had taken government grant money and given it in sub-grants, parts of it, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and had collaborated quite closely with Shi Zhengli.

GROSS: Who's the head of the lab that was doing the virus research.

EBAN: That's right, the lead coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A number of the signatories on that letter were either on EcoHealth Alliance payroll or had gotten funding from EcoHealth Alliance. But really what sort of framed this as an issue was that a Freedom of Information group got emails from Peter Daszak which basically said, we're going to try to put out this statement without linking back to us so it looks like, you know, there's a kind of unanimity and our fingerprints won't be on it, which will give it sort of more authority and power.

So the problem is there was not disclosure of his role. There was not disclosure of his conflicts. And there was a claim that there were no conflicts at all. So in retrospect, that statement, which had such a chilling effect on the scientific community, looks orchestrated and much more questionable than it did at that time.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that the U.S. actually funds some research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was a real surprise to me. And you think that might have been one of the obstacles standing in the way of further investigation into the lab-leak theory. What kind of funding do we give the institute or did we give the institute? Like, how much money and for what research?

EBAN: One of the misconceptions is that somehow the National Institutes of Health was directly funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology. What was happening is that there were U.S. government grants being given to EcoHealth Alliance. This is a New York-based nonprofit which endeavors to work with far-flung laboratories to sort of sample the viruses in the natural world and try to gauge or anticipate which ones will become potentially infectious to humans. So EcoHealth was giving money in sub-grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

GROSS: So let's see if I understand it. So the NIH gives money to this EcoHealth Alliance. The EcoHealth Alliance grants some of that money to other groups, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Now, the person who heads the EcoHealth Alliance is Peter Daszak, who is the person behind that Lancet article that we talked about earlier that discredited the lab-leak theory.

EBAN: That is correct. You have gotten the entire chain accurate. So, you know, let me just say that faced with this fact pattern, there have been conspiracy theories that go, you know, so far beyond what is merited here. Nonetheless, I think there are legitimate questions to be asked about the controls over that money, what the money was being used for. And, you know, a question that people ask is, if in fact the Chinese military, which is a hostile adversary to the U.S., was actually in the Wuhan Institute of Virology doing potentially dual-use research, which means for defensive and offensive purposes, should we have been allowing U.S. taxpayer dollars into that research facility?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Katherine Eban. Her new article, "The Lab-Leak Theory," is now online at the Vanity Fair website. She is a contributing editor at the magazine. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET'S "FOOTPRINTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Katherine Eban, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her new article is titled "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight To Uncover COVID-19's Origins." It examines the political agendas and conflicts of interest that may have stood in the way of a serious investigation into whether the coronavirus that caused the pandemic leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. She spent months investigating the story, conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes and emails.

Let's talk about some of the politics that you uncovered. You write that behind closed doors, national security and public health experts and officials across a range of departments in the executive branch were locked in high-stakes battles over what could and couldn't be investigated and made public. What were some of those battles over?

EBAN: There were two main investigative teams within the U.S. government looking into COVID origins. One was at the National Security Council, which is within the White House, the executive branch. And the other team was within the State Department. And this was a group that normally investigates biological weapons violations, potentially of violations of treaties. So as these two groups began digging into this question separately, the State Department group hit a roadblock, which is that they were frequently admonished by colleagues, according to one contemporaneous memo that I obtained, that looking into gain-of-function research was going to be opening a Pandora's box, opening a can of worms into the question of the U.S. government's own involvement in this.

As well, I document a meeting that took place in December of 2020, which I got contemporaneous documentation for, which shows that there were, again, State Department officials - a State Department official who said, you know, if you're going to dig into this gain-of-function research, you are, you know, opening a can of worms. And you should not be doing this.

GROSS: What's the can of worms?

EBAN: Well, that is the question. It's complicated. I mean, the can of worms is the U.S. scientific community's involvement in gain-of-function research and potential - and funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in this contentious area of virology research. So these State Department investigators felt that they were being told at this critical moment not to look. The people on the other side of this debate that I interviewed, other State Department officials, felt that these State Department investigators were pursuing an unaccountable investigation, making certain unwarranted leaps of logic about the risks of this kind of research, were potentially going to make allegations about violations of biowarfare treaties. And they wanted to ensure that the science was accurate.

But, you know, what's very clear is that you had these two groups within the State Department who were at absolute loggerheads over how to pursue these questions, whether to pursue these questions, in what manner to do so. This debate culminated, actually, in a document that both sides agree is legitimate, which is a January 15, 2021 fact sheet that the State Department put out, which is based partly on classified information and partly on open source information, which says a number of - we have information that a number of researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick in the autumn of 2019 - so that's prior to the official outbreak of the pandemic - and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting classified military research. So, you know, they're basically saying in this statement, the question of where COVID-19 originated from remains unanswered.

GROSS: Well, tell us more about the story of the researchers who died while researching the virus.

EBAN: Right. So what my sources have indicated is that the State Department researchers in roughly November of 2020 got a tip from a foreign source that said you have information in your own possession that could point to, you know, possible researchers who had been - who were sickened much earlier than described who worked at the U.S. Institute of Virology. And they weren't the janitors. They were doing coronavirus research.

So that led to a rummaging through classified information. And the conclusion that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did, in fact, fall ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in roughly November 2019, and they sought treatment at the hospital. You know, the questions that remain unanswered - now, this is something that the lead coronavirus researcher at the institute, Shi Zhengli, strenuously denies. She recently told The New York Times that she has no information about who those people are. Can you please share the names with me?

You know, the other unknown questions here are if, in fact, the intelligence is true, what were they sickened with? You know, it's flu season. Was it flu? Was it COVID-19? And, you know, were these people essentially a, you know, patient zero, as it were, as the source of this outbreak? So none of this is known for certain. But there is no question that within the State Department, this brought the investigation renewed focus.

GROSS: Let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katherine Eban. Her new article, "The Lab-Leak Theory," is now online at the Vanity Fair website. It will be published in a subsequent print issue of the magazine. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER'S "FJORD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with investigative journalist Katherine Eban. Her new article, which is currently on the Vanity Fair website, is titled "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight to Uncover COVID-19's Origins."

China seems to have covered up some information and prevented the World Health Organization and journalists from learning things that they want to learn. What has China's role been in preventing access to information?

EBAN: So that is one area in this story where there seems to be little dispute that China has acted to cover things up from the beginning of the outbreak - you know, initially the question of whether it was transmissible from person to person, the question of the outbreak severity, the silencing of scientists and doctors in China who spoke out about this. Now, when it comes to the question of the lab leak, there is another reason why these questions have not receded, and that is because China has not been transparent in allowing access to certain aspects of the Wuhan Institute of Virology Research. So as an example of that, this critical database that contains about 22,000 viral samples was taken offline several months before the official outbreak of the pandemic and has not been restored. That is the institute's inventory of all the samples that they had in their files, essentially. It's like the filing cabinet of virus sequences. So that is offline.

GROSS: Wait. So that would tell us whether the coronavirus that caused the pandemic was one of the viruses they were specifically working with?

EBAN: Right. Well, that would be one way to gauge it. You know, it's imperfect. But one of the questions is, is there a viral sequence in there that is a closer progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 than the other viral sequences that are known?

GROSS: What are some of the other things China might have done to intentionally cover up information about things that might have led to the pandemic?

EBAN: Well, there's really a sort of startling subchapter to all of this, and it has to do with an abandoned mine shaft in Yunnan province. So in 2012, a group of six miners were sent to this mine shaft to shovel bat guano - bat feces - from the floor of this mine shaft. They became incredibly ill with symptoms that resemble COVID-19. But this is, of course, back in 2012. They were admitted to a hospital. Three of those miners died.

Now, this is exactly the kind of thing that you would think China would flag, right? They're supposed to report it to the World Health Organization. As, you know, one expert has said in a State Department panel, you would expect banner headlines around this incident. But in fact, it was never reported to the World Health Organization. Now, we know that samples - viral samples from that mine were taken back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and analyzed. Back in 2013, that sequence was called 4991. Once the COVID-19 outbreak began, the U.S. Institute of Virology published a paper but didn't reference 4911. They referenced RaTG13.

It was a name change that some people feel was an effort to conceal that this viral sequence, which is the closest known progenitor to SARS-CoV-2 - it's 96.2% similar - that this had originated from this mine. So there's all kinds of questions about, you know, about that sequence, about the deep sequencing of those viral samples, you know, whether that was in this database that has been taken offline. And, you know, in a sort of ecosystem where every scientist in the world is trying to figure out what the closest progenitor to SARS-CoV-2 was and where it originated, these all seem like key - potentially key pieces of the puzzle that were concealed or dealt with far less candidly than they should have been.

GROSS: So this theory about the people sweeping the bat guano from the floor of the mine, that they might have gotten sickened with the same or a similar virus that caused the pandemic, so that would prove that the virus spread from bat guano to humans, that it basically, like, crossed species there. So explain a little bit more how the lab figures into it.

EBAN: Right. So, you know, there is a central mystery here, which is, if this sample in Yunnan province in the south of China is potentially a source of COVID-19, how did it arrive in Wuhan, which is, you know, a central Chinese city without leaving any trail of illnesses along the way, right? Well, there is one way that could have happened or several ways that could have happened, which is the researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology did sampling trips to that mine shaft, and they took back those samples that sickened the miners.

So there is one way we know of that that bat guano or whatever was in there got to Wuhan. And it's through the research of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Now, remember; the lab leak theory, as we discussed, is a range of possibilities. It's not necessarily that they created a supercharged pathogen through nefarious research. It could be that they had a potential virus sample in their collection that could have led - that could have inadvertently, accidentally escaped from the lab.

Now, that's a possibility that crossed Shi Zhengli's mind. And we know that because she gave an interview to Scientific American early on saying, essentially, to paraphrase what she told the magazine, you know, I was so worried when this outbreak started that I stayed up all night and I went through our whole inventory to make sure that it hadn't originated from our lab. And I was so relieved to find that it hadn't, is what she said to the magazine.

GROSS: Do you trust her word on that?

EBAN: Well, one of the real problems here is that, you know, you have to ask, is she free to be candid? I mean, she is - you know, has the - she is living within an authoritarian system that closely monitors what its citizens and its leading scientists say. You know, a number of people early on who raised questions, their voices were brutally suppressed. So, you know, this is not - she is not operating in a system where she would be free to talk about a possible lab accident, you know, even if she wanted to. So it's hard to just say, sure, we trust what she's saying.

GROSS: So another group that's trying to investigate the lab-leak theory is a kind of, like, freelance group, a group of people who kind of came together. And it's called DRASTIC, which is an acronym for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Research Team Investing (ph) COVID-19. I saw their name, and I wanted almost, like, automatically dismiss them. Like, I would have preferred that they were called the totally unbiased, truly scientific, we-have-no-agenda-here group, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

EBAN: Well, like everything in this story, you know, the DRASTIC group is a real mixture. There are, you know, legitimate scientists in that group from cutting-edge research institutes. There are science enthusiasts. There are people hiding behind pseudonyms. So they are a range of researchers and, potentially, a range of motives there. But there is no question that they have done some research that has come up with some real findings.

GROSS: Like what?

EBAN: For example, one of their members, who does hide behind a pseudonym - he's known on Twitter as TheSeeker268. I spoke with him on the phone, which was the reason why I was able to feature him in the article, because I was able to verify his identity. He is an ex-science teacher who lives in eastern India. And, you know, like everybody, he was, you know, locked in his home as the pandemic raged. And he got very curious about this.

I should note that, you know, a lot of these researchers, when I interviewed them, they all said something similar to me, which is when they looked at this fact pattern, they wondered, why are the scientists acting so unscientific? Why have they all chosen to take this hypothesis off the table when it hasn't been disproven?

So The Seeker got interested in this question, and he started doing research within a Chinese database that houses thousands of Chinese dissertations. He speaks no Mandarin, so he would put key words into this database, and he would get back Chinese dissertations written in Chinese. He would take the dissertations and put them into Google Translate. By doing this, he turned up a Chinese master's thesis written in 2013 that detailed the illnesses of these six miners who had gone down into this mine shaft. It's a very detailed thesis, which I've read, and chronicles the ferocity of their illness, how the oldest miner died first and, basically, the investigation that ensued to try to figure out what was wrong with them. So it is, you know, from this unemployed science teacher sitting in eastern India doing this that raised all these questions about the Mojiang mine.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katherine Eban. Her new article, "The Lab-Leak Theory," is now online at the Vanity Fair website, where she is a contributing editor. It will be published in the subsequent issue of the actual print magazine. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK'S "WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with investigative journalist Katherine Eban. Her new article on the Vanity Fair website is titled "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight To Uncover COVID-19's Origins."

When the World Health Organization sent its team to investigate the lab-leak theory, did China withhold evidence from them, were they blocked?

EBAN: Well, so this is really extraordinary. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with China, assembled a team of experts to go over and do a sort of independent study, a mission to China to look at some of these questions.

The U.S. government put forward names of three experts to be included in this panel, this group of experts. None of them were selected or approved. China approved one U.S. representative, and that was Peter Daszak, who is the president of EcoHealth Alliance and was one of the initial authors of that Lancet statement. So fast-forward to this mission to China. The experts - this group of experts went and visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You would think if they were doing a very thorough investigation that they would say, we want access to the database - right? - of all these samples. They didn't ask for that.

When Peter Daszak was later questioned, did the team ask, you know, to see this database? - he said, oh, no, we didn't need to ask because we essentially know what's in that database - no need. And Shi Zhengli, the main researcher, told us that due to hacking attempts, the database was taken offline, and that's perfectly reasonable. You know, in light of 3.5 million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, you know, it's a sort of strange attitude to take that this is all perfectly fine to be run on an honor system and there doesn't need to be any independent corroboration of this.

So you know, Peter Daszak's kind of attitude, the failings of the team of experts to really get to the bottom of this really raised eyebrows among people following this very closely. And then it also further raised eyebrows that their final report on this concluded, we think the lab-leak hypothesis is very unlikely. And the question is, well, OK, but on the basis of what? You know, so that theory only got covered in about two pages of a 120-page report. You know, those are some of the issues that have led experts tracking this closely to say, you know, this is a completely inadequate review of this possibility.

GROSS: Well, you know, the pandemic already exists. Like, we can't stop it from having happened. It's happened. So why is it so important to know what the origins are?

EBAN: It's so important to know so that we can prevent a future pandemic, right? I mean, if this was a lab-leak origin, we would have to massively overhaul laboratory safety and scientific approaches to research. It would have huge implications for the scientific world. If it's a natural origin, we have to, you know, massively restrict our incursions into these wild spaces and try to eliminate our interactions with animals that need to be left alone. Now, one might argue we have to do that anyway for the sake of the planet. But, you know, this is why the FAA investigates every single plane crash. And they do it with a real rigor because it's a lessons-learned exercise that is vital to improving safety going forward.

GROSS: Well, thank you for telling us about your reporting.

EBAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you for being our guest.

EBAN: It was a pleasure to speak with you, Terry.

GROSS: Katherine Eban, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her article "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight To Uncover COVID-19's Origins" is now on the Vanity Fair website.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SONG FOR SALLY")

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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