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CNN Special Reports
The Origins of COVID-19, Searching for the Source. Aired 11p- 12a ET
Aired September 19, 2021 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Reports on outbreaks.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Where did the novel coronavirus come from? That is the million-dollar question.
JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Did it come from a bat or was it born in a lab?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been more than a year and a half into a pandemic that has killed over 4.5 million people and turned all of our lives upside down. The world scientists are still hunting for answers.
KRISTIAN ANDERSEN, SCRIPPS RESEARCH INSTITUTE: This started in Wuhan and at the Huanan market is where we first detected it.
MARIA VAN KERKHOVE, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION COVID-19 TECHNICAL LEAD: The most likely hypothesis is that it came from a bat.
GUPTA: With 75 percent of all emerging diseases caused by a jump from animals into humans, there were warning signs.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every few years there is a new spillover event with a new disease that humans have no immunity to.
GUPTA: It's a likely probability that this one originated from animals naturally as well, but the possibility also remains that the virus leaked from a lab.
JON STEWART, FORMER LATE-NIGHT HOST: The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab.
DAVID RELMAN, STANFORD UNIVERSITY INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT AND MICROBIOLOGIST: It's a laboratory at the heart of the city where the outbreak occurred that's undertaking some risky work. Laboratory accidents happen much more often than we know.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The biological window to learn what happened, that window might be closing. (END VIDEOTAPE)
GUPTA (on-camera): Good evening. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. It's been nearly two years since the world first learned of COVID-19 and there are still no definitive answers of its origins. No clear culprit, no smoking gun. All we can say based on the evidence we have now is that it wasn't intentionally bio engineered.
So, over the last several months, we've been speaking to the world's top scientists. Now it wasn't easy. Almost all of them faced death threats because of their work on this topic. Some of them have never spoken on camera before. But with their help, tonight, we try to push past the politics and take a look at the scientific evidence for the two leading theories.
The zoonotic hypothesis that the virus spilled over into humans from a bat or another intermediary animal, as has been the case with past coronavirus outbreaks like SARS in 2003 or MERS in 2012, versus the lab leak hypothesis, the idea that the virus accidentally leaked from a lab.
We start by taking a deeper look at the only scientific study of COVID's origins to date. The World Health Organization's report and why it was so controversial.
GUPTA (voice-over): In January 2021, the World Health Organization launched this group of virologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians and medical doctors to Wuhan.
DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT BASED IN CHINA: They were swarmed with photographers, local and foreign media that were tracking their every move.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you find anything inside?
GUPTA: The team's mission? To better understand the origins of the virus.
CULVER: Most of the attention has been put on the Huanan seafood market.
KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Chinese authorities have traced a new deadly virus back to this seafood market in the city of Wuhan.
GUPTA: Those earliest months in Wuhan were filled with lots of confusion and obstruction from the Chinese government on just how contagious, deadly and dangerous this virus really was.
RALPH BARIC, UNC CHAPEL HILL: The original reports coming out of China were that it was not highly transmissible, which was suspicious.
GUPTA: From the pandemic's earliest days, the Chinese government refused offers of help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, global public health workers and academic researchers. Simply put, nobody was allowed in.
PETER DASZAK, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION JOINT STUDY: We wrote to our contacts in China and said, can we help? Our goal is to have veterinarians and field teams in there right at the beginning of the first case to say, can we trace back the origins right now and get the evidence while it's fresh before it's all removed and cleaned up? And unfortunately, the crisis was too intense is what we were told.
GUPTA: Dr. Peter Daszak is a renowned virus hunter. He's also president of the Eco Health Alliance.
He and his team go out and sample for viruses in the wild to try and determine which pathogens will pose the greatest risk to human health.
DASZAK: We estimate there are about 1.7 million unknown viruses in mammals, wildlife, out there around the world that could become emerging diseases or pandemics in people.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you find the origin of the coronavirus?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Excellent facilities. Very informative meeting.
KATIE BO WILLIAMS, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: The United States submitted three U.S. researchers for selection, all three of them were rejected by China, which did ultimately have final say since the WHO was coming into their country.
The only American who was permitted on the team was Peter Daszak who we know to be the organizer of the Lancet Statement and who had worked closely with the WIV.
GUPTA: The WIV incidentally is the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak and Eco Health Alliance would later draw fire for their work with the WIV and one of its lead researchers, Dr. Shi Zhengli. Remember that name. We'll get back to her.
In February of 2020 in the very earliest days of the pandemic, Daszak was the driving force behind an influential letter.
WILLIAMS: It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of this open letter in the Lancet.
GUPTA: Daszak and 26 other prominent scientists wrote, quote, "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."
WILLIAMS: It almost succeeded in characterizing the hunt for the lab leak theory as not just unscientific but even xenophobic. It really kind of sets the political tone.
ALINA CHAN, BROAD INSTITUTE: It cost anything, any hypothesis speculating that the virus has unnatural origins as a conspiracy theory. So that had a chilling effect on the scientific community. GUPTA: In recently released e-mails from early 2020, Daszak discusses signing the Lancet letter in an e-mail to other scientists writing, quote, "We'll then put it out in a way that doesn't link it back to our collaboration, so we maximize an independent voice."
(On-camera): People may say, look, you're too close to it. I mean, you work in China, you are part of this alliance that helps fund some of the research that's happening there. Maybe there's a conflict.
DASZAK: Well, how can there be a conflict when it's a statement of support?
GUPTA: The thing I think that struck me it was so early. How were you so certain at that point to go ahead and label anything that was not a natural origin a conspiracy theory?
DASZAK: Well, because the theory at the time was this is a bio- engineered virus.
GUPTA: So, this was not in any way to take off the possibility that this could have still leaked from a lab even if it had not been bio- engineered?
DASZAK: That was not what was being said at the time. What was being said at the time is this is a bio-engineered virus that had been released by Chinese scientists.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH DIRECTOR: There were concerns. Is there something here that looks like it might be the signature of human manipulation?
ANDERSEN: Initially in January knowing the type of work that was going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, we started thinking like, look, we need to consider the possibility that this is maybe not a natural virus.
GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Kristian Andersen is an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute. In late January 2020, he wrote to Dr. Fauci in correspondence that was also later released.
ANDERSEN: We are concerned about this particular virus. We think that what we are looking at here might be different than what we would expect to see just from a naturally emerged virus.
GUPTA: Andersen and other scientists worked around the clock searching for clues deep in the genome.
ANDERSEN: The engineering aspect of this very quickly we realized that we just don't have the evidence to support that.
GUPTA: Even though they initially thought this novel virus had evidence of bioengineering, they subsequently found evidence of similar traits in other known naturally occurring viruses.
COLLINS: We debated up one side down the other, and ultimately decided if you were a human trying to design a really dangerous coronavirus, you would not design this one.
ANDERSEN: If we can find any evidence of this virus previously having been sequenced or worked on, maybe there's fragments of the virus which they've used previously in experiments would be, quote-unquote, "a smoking gun" and we didn't find anything at all.
GUPTA: And by March 2020, Andersen published what would become the most influential paper in support of the natural origins theory. By the end of April 2020, the bio-engineered weapon theory seemed to have been laid to rest.
WILLIAMS: The director of National Intelligence puts out this really remarkable memo in which they agreed with the broad scientific consensus that the virus was not manmade or genetically altered.
A few hours later, President Trump comes out --
JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: And what gives you a high degree of confidence that this originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
DONALD TRUMP, THEN PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that.
GUPTA: Over the course of 2020, however, more and more revelations emerged related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
CULVER: At least three staff members were sickened early on. They were so sick they had to go to the hospital.
Now here in China, that's not necessarily unusual given there is no real primary care system but still to be hospitalized with an unknown respiratory illness suggests that perhaps this virus was spreading even in November 2019 in Wuhan.
GUPTA: Wuhan scientists deny this ever happened, but then, reports of a massive pathogen database containing thousands of bad coronavirus entries just went offline.
WILLIAMS: Just a few months before the world becomes aware that there is this dangerous virus circulating in Wuhan, the WIV removes from the internet this catalog of 22,000 viral samples that it had been working on, that it had been studying.
GUPTA (on-camera): What happened to the bat coronavirus database in September of 2019?
DASZAK: They told us they were revising it and making it more searchable and that they would then get hacked over and over again so they didn't put it back up. That's what they told us.
GUPTA: Do you believe that?
DASZAK: Well, it's not my role to believe or not believe. I'm a scientist. I look at data and information and we look at it objectively.
GUPTA: You're a scientist but I'm saying, you know, you do have to look at history as well and there's been concerns that there's been a lack of transparency.
DASZAK: Right. When I look in that database, it was simply a list of samples with sequences attached. Most of which had been published, probably the vast majority by now, so we knew what was in those data bases.
GUPTA: If it was mostly out there.
GUPTA: Much of it published, why were they so concerned about it being hacked?
DASZAK: Well, I don't know. I mean, more importantly, people who think that that database has the answers to SARS-COVI-2, I really doubt that.
CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS, U.S. SUPREME COURT: So, help you God?
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, help me God.
ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.
GUPTA (voice-over): And by early 2021, as one presidency ended and another began, Dr. Robert Redfield, former head of the CDC under the Trump administration and a career virologist, told me this.
DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: I still think the most likely ideology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, you know, escaped.
GUPTA (on-camera): You're now saying that when you piece it together, you think the virus probably originated in a lab?
REDFIELD: It's very possible that someone acquired that virus, got infected. And I don't think I've heard another argument that makes sense. It's interesting and, you know, the WHO mission right now and what they're coming out, I'm anxious to read their report.
GUPTA: Coming up, that World Health Organization report on COVID's origins and the controversy that quickly followed.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: After a year of wrangling and delays, the WHO is set to finally publish their first report into one of the most important questions over this novel coronavirus. Where did it start?
ANA CABRERA, THEN CNN ANCHOR: This comes as the former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield tells our Dr. Sanjay Gupta that he thinks the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan.
REDFIELD: That's not implying any intentionality. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in time, the virus came to the human, became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity.
GUPTA: Dr. Redfield's comments boosted the lab leak theory and so did a U.S. intelligence report stating that there were sick researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in November of 2019.
(On-camera): The U.S. intelligence community released a memo saying that several lab workers got sick with COVID-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019. Did you investigate that possibility?
DASZAK: I remember specifically asking the Wuhan lab director and the staff about people who got sick, and we repeated that and pushed and asked pretty tough questions around that and they refuted it.
GUPTA: According to the Wuhan Institute of Virology on practices, they would have taken blood samples around that time.
GUPTA: Did you get to see those blood samples?
DASZAK: No. No. But we did ask them. We asked them if they do that, they confirmed that they did take sample, that they tested them after the outbreak and that they were negative for COVID.
GUPTA (voice-over): On March 30th, 2021, more than 15 months now after the pandemic began, the World Health Organization released its highly anticipated report on the origins of COVID. The WHO team's conclusions, a direct spillover from animals to humans was a possibly to likely pathway. A jump from an intermediate host was likely to very likely. The virus coming in through frozen food was a possible pathway. And a laboratory incident was deemed extremely unlikely. Swiftly, criticism of the report came from far and wide.
VAUSE: More than a dozen countries issued a joint statement raising concerns about the credibility of the research and the independence of the findings.
JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It lacks crucial data, information. It lacks access, it lacks transparency.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The report dismissed the possibility that the virus was the result of a lab accident, but the organization's own chief questioned that, saying the theory needs further investigation because, quote, "I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough."
GUPTA (on-camera): Dr. Tedros, he said that the dismissing of the lab leak theory was premature. He's the director of the WHO. To have that sort of criticism of one of his own studies, that really caught my attention. DASZAK: Yes, well, that's his prerogative. You know, he's the director general of WHO. We're the people on the ground who write the report and submit it for him to look at, and for the public to see. We did our job and now he's doing his job.
GUPTA (voice-over): Critics say that job was seriously flawed from the outset.
(On-camera): Was it an investigation?
DASZAK: His official talk was a joint study which is very important because if it's a joint study, it's a collaborative study between the WHO and the member state China. The public looked at this as an investigation from the start, and I think that was a mistake and I think WHO should probably have spoken out, well, firstly said we are not going to do a forensic investigation of the lab.
GUPTA: Why not?
DASZAK: Well, because it's a member state organization, WHO, so China is part of that and it's a joint decision among the member states as to what happens on that study.
GUPTA: For a lot of people who are sort of looking from the outside in, they say there is all these different possibilities. Why weren't they explored or investigated thoroughly including a forensic examination of the lab? Is that a fair line of questioning?
DASZAK: Absolutely. Of course. We all have to agree on what happens for it to happen.
GUPTA (voice-over): Both foreign and Chinese scientists were part of the WHO effort and team members said they had to unanimously agree on the contents of the report. The head of the team, WHO food safety specialist Peter Ben Embarek, told TV 2 that their Chinese counterparts didn't even want to include the lab leak theory at all.
PETER BEN EMBAREK, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION FOOD SAFETY SPECIALIST: (Speaking in foreign language) At first they don't want to include the lab because it was impossible. That's when I said that we have to include or we don't have a report.
GUPTA (on-camera): Was a full evaluation of the lab meant to be part of this report?
VAN KERKHOVE: We didn't have people on the mission team who were experts in bio safety, bio security, so it wasn't really their mandate to do.
GUPTA: If the report was never meant to really investigate the lab leak theory, why was Dr. Tedros critical of the report?
VAN KERKHOVE: If you look at the way that they reported on that, they classified it as extremely unlikely. So for us to be able to take that off the table, it needs to be studied properly, it needs to be studied thoroughly.
GUPTA (voice-over): It was just one of many red flags that dogged the report.
JOSH ROGIN, CNN ANALYST AND WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: They had very, very limited access to the labs. They were very limited in their movements.
CULVER: Members of that WHO team began to criticize some of the lack of data that they received. They began to question the transparency from their Chinese counterparts.
GUPTA: At the Huanan seafood market, traces of COVID-19 were found on the floors, walls and surfaces. The WHO team was told that no live animals were being sold prior to the outbreak. That was despite images like these.
LU STOUT: CNN has obtained this video filmed inside the market. Images of the market from early December taken by a concerned customer indicate it was apparently selling other live wild animals.
ANDERSEN: We now know that animals were in fact sold there, live animals, which is something that China has denied. But it's clear that animals like raccoon dogs are susceptible to these viruses and very likely intermediate hosts were actually sold there.
GUPTA (on-camera): Do you think it was an adequate investigation?
RELMAN: I just think that they were now fair and objective. They had looked reasonably hard at one plausible hypothesis but really had ignored or brushed aside the other, the laboratory associated hypothesis.
GUPTA: How much of the report was dedicated to zoonosis?
RELMAN: Right. Right. So I tallied up the page numbers. The total annex and main report for the laboratory was about four pages out of 313. And in those four pages, the title of the section was "Conspiracy Theories."
GUPTA: You know, there is a lot of smoke here, no definitive flame, but database goes down. No sharing of samples of these potential lab workers who got sickened. No forensic analysis of the lab. It starts to sound like there wasn't a really definitive investigation of the lab leak theory.
DASZAK: Well, I think that's right. There is not a definitive investigation of the lab leak theory.
GUPTA: Will there be?
DASZAK: Well, I think that it needs to follow the evidence. If there is definitive evidence of a lab leak, then that needs to be investigated. There is none yet.
GUPTA: But part of the reason there is none is because information is not being shared.
DASZAK: Right. If we want to see information shared from China about what went on in the lab, we need phase two to begin very rapidly.
GUPTA (voice-over): The Chinese government has rejected a phase two of the World Health Organization study, and now even says the world should look to other countries for the origins of COVID-19.
Coming up, the scientist known as the bat woman.
LAURA HELMUTH, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: She also worried, is there a chance it could have come from our lab?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're fast approaching the 2-year mark of this pandemic and we don't know how it started.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a coronavirus so it's likely that it came from a bat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is why? Was it because in that wet market they were seeing fried bats, it entered the human population by people eating fried bats or drinking bat soup? Or was it that there was a laboratory that was working with a bat coronavirus that a lab worker or workers got sick and that's how it entered the human population?
GUPTA (on-camera): Are bats just carrying a lot of these types of viruses that aren't making them sick but could potentially spill over to other animals including humans?
DASZAK: Bats tend to carry a lot of different viruses. They get it supporting a lot of the viruses in the body without getting harmed.
GUPTA (voice-over): When a mysterious disease was circulating in Wuhan at the end of 2019, Dr. Shi Zhengli was one of the first people to be alerted.
CULVER: Dr. Shi Zhengli is known here in China as the bat woman.
HELMUTH: On December 30th, she got a call from her boss, the director of the whole institute, who said drop whatever you're doing and get back to the lab right now.
GUPTA: After all, she is the director for the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
ANDERSEN: She has given us some of the greatest insights into coronaviruses. She figured out where SARS came from. GUPTA: 2002 and 2003, that's when the first SARS outbreak swept across Asia. The original SARS infected about 8,000 people around the world and led to nearly 800 deaths.
That's a 10 percent fatality rate, but luckily it wasn't very contagious, and it was spread only by people showing symptoms. Within months, researchers had traced that virus back to live animals being sold as food at wet markets in southern China.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Chinese government today began slaughtering the animals believed to spread the disease. About 10,000 cats will be destroyed.
GUPTA: But how had it gotten into civic cats? Where did the first SARS actually originate? Well, virus hunters like Dr. Shi Zhengli and researchers from Eco Health Alliance set out to test a theory that SARS-1 had come from bats.
HELMUTH: They sampled caves all over southern China. In some cases they had to like crawl on their bellies to get into through the tight crevices and into the caverns where the bats are. So they collected lots and lots of bat samples and then they took all these samples back to the lab.
GUPTA: It would take almost a decade. Remember that. Nearly 10 years to figure this out. But Dr. Shi Zhengli's work confirmed that SARS-1 had in fact started in bats.
Now by the time COVID was first detected in 2019 the Wuhan Institute of Virology was home to the largest collection of bar coronavirus samples in the world.
HELMUTH: She also worried because, you know, her lab is in Wuhan, is there a chance it could have come from our lab?
GUPTA: Within days, Dr. Shi's team had isolated the virus, sequenced it, and then shared its full genome.
HELMUTH: As soon as they had the sequence, they were able to determine it had never been in her lab, had nothing to do with the viruses that she had studied before.
GUPTA (on-camera): Does the data exist to say convincingly that there weren't pretty early ancestors of the virus in the lab?
ANDERSEN: The WIV has been asked about this, I'm sure Zhengli herself has been asked about this, and have denied it. They've also said that they have tested all their bat samples they had in the freezers and none of them had SARS-CoV-2 and said they have done zoology testing on the staff and none of them had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. I trust them. We've been talking about some of the best scientists in the world here.
GUPTA (voice-over): But another important origins clue stems from Dr. Shi's lab in Wuhan.
COLLINS: The closest relative to SARS-CoV-2 was this bat virus called RaTG13.
GUPTA: RaTG13 was found in a horseshoe bat. The sample was taken by a team of researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was collected from a Mojiang mine where six miners had worked and were later hospitalized with SARS-like symptoms back in 2012. Three of them died.
RELMAN: That is the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. And we don't even know that that's the virus that made those six miners sick.
GUPTA (on-camera): How close are we talking about here?
RELMAN: 96 percent similar. Sounds like a high number but in terms of virus evolution, that 4 percent difference takes decades. Their last common ancestor probably was out there in nature 30 or 40 years ago.
GUPTA: She said there is a zero chance this came from her lab. What did you think of that?
CHAN: So I'd like to see what made her think there was a zero chance that it came from her lab. Can you show me the data that substantiates your hypothesis or your claim?
GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Alina Chan, post-doctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has consistently challenged the widely accepted zoonotic theory, often going up against well-established virologists on Twitter and in science journals. Chan is one of 18 prominent scientists who published a letter in "Science" magazine in May of this year calling for an investigation into all possible origins.
(On-camera): What would you like to see specifically?
CHAN: The first thing would be getting access to that database that's gone missing.
GUPTA (voice-over): The same missing pathogen database containing thousands of bat coronavirus entries that was taken offline by WIV in September of 2019.
CHAN: So, this is a database that the mission was to collect all the viruses in the wild and use it to help prevent pandemics. So, this is a pandemic. So why didn't they share that database with other scientists so they could figure out how dangerous this virus, where did it come from?
GUPTA (on-camera): What is the status of that database now? Have you been able now then as a member of this WHO team or in any capacity to look at that data?
GUPTA: That sounds concerning, Peter, if it is as serious and we're trying to be as thorough as possible. Maybe it mounts to nothing but I think the fact that you still haven't seen that database, it's just going to raise a lot of eyebrows as we go forward.
DASZAK: Well, rightly so. I think that, you know, China should be more open about the things that they've not released.
But this is where politics comes into and when a country is under attack, and they defend and then scientists are caught in the middle of it. It's really unfortunate.
GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Shi Zhengli and others at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not respond to interview requests for this documentary.
Coming up, lab safety concerns in Wuhan.
BARIC: The experiments that they did under the conditions that they did them were risky.
GUPTA (on-camera): Why do you think there is such a renewed interest in the lab leak theory?
BARIC: Well, there are some scientists speaking up, that can't rule out the possibility of a lab leak.
GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Ralph Baric is one of them. He's also one of the world's top bat coronavirus researchers. His lab develops some of the most effective treatments for COVID-19 and he has collaborated in the past with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Over the course of 2021, Baric has grown increasingly concerned about lab safety at the WIV.
BARIC: Their papers indicate that they did much of their work with these bat viruses under biological safety two conditions.
GUPTA: There are four tiers of bio safety. BSL 1 is the lowest. And BSL 2, pathogens with known vaccines or cures like measles can be worked on. Lab coats and gloves are worn, and all work is performed under a biological safety cabinet hood. Eye protection and face shields are optional. Some critics have likened BSL 2 conditions to a dental office.
BARIC: There are many more laboratory accidents or laboratory acquired infections BSL 2 as compared to BSL 3.
GUPTA: While there is no international BSL standard for coronavirus, Dr. Baric sees BSL 2 as far too risky.
BARIC: We do all the research in our lab on bat related coronaviruses under biological safety three enhanced conditions. We wear portable air breathing apparatuses with tied back suits so the workers are protected from anything that might be in the laboratory.
GUPTA: Now, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is best known for its world class BSL 4 lab which became fully operational in 2018. Those labs handle the world's most dangerous microbes with no known cures or treatments.
SHI ZHENGLI, WUHAN INSTITUTE OF VIROLOGY (through translator): This P- 4 laboratory will mainly be used for research on highly pathogenic infectious diseases, and for which there are currently no medicines or vaccines.
GUPTA: But in the year that it opened, U.S. diplomats visited the labs and expressed concerns.
ROGIN: What the U.S. diplomats told their Washington colleagues was that if their lab accident happened at this lab, that this could cause another outbreak of a bat coronavirus pandemic.
GUPTA: That same year Wuhan scientists authored a paper on biosafety labs across China, warning in part that there was a lack of enough operable technical standards. Several labs in Wuhan handled bat coronaviruses.
CULVER: This is Wuhan Center for Disease Control. This is one of the labs within Wuhan. Inside, lower-level bio safety labs that likewise involved the study of bats and coronaviruses.
DR. DANIELLE ANDERSON, VIROLOGIST: All the procedures that I saw happening over there would be the same as if in any other country that I've in.
GUPTA: Dr. Danielle Anderson is the last and only foreign scientist to train and work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology's BSL 4 labs. When she left Wuhan in November of 2019, she had no inkling of the pandemic to come. No word of an illness spreading in Wuhan. No rumors of sickened workers. In fact, she was planning to return in early 2020.
ANDERSON: You need to know the symptoms of that particular pathogen that you work with and if you experience any of those symptoms, they need to be reported.
GUPTA: She spoke to us from Australia where she now works at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne.
ANDERSON: With the BSL 4 in particular, every day we have to take our temperature and our blood pressure, and it's recorded in a logbook. Also, at WIV, which is not something that's done everywhere. Before I ever step foot in the lab, I went to the hospital, had a blood sample taken and that was stored.
GUPTA: Dr. Anderson worked on Ebola and Nipah virus in WIV's BSL 4 labs, and she attests to the high standards at that specific level. But again, it's not the BSL 4 that concerns Dr. Baric -- it's coronavirus being worked on at lower biosafety level conditions, like BSL 2.
BARIC: The experiments that they did under the conditions that they did them were risky.
GUPTA: The Wuhan Institute of Virology did not respond to interview requests for this documentary.
Coming up --
SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): You're saying that's not gain of function?
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Yes, that is correct. And Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about.
GUPTA (on-camera): Is this sort of gain of function research? Was it happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
PAUL: Dr. Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement of May 11th where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain of function research in Wuhan?
FAUCI: Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress. This paper that you're referring to was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain of function.
GUPTA (on-camera): These exchanges seem to assert that U.S. taxpayer dollars, via the NIH through your organization went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and funded gain of function research.
GUPTA: Which may, not definitively by any means, but may have been a source of this pandemic. What do you say?
DASZAK: That's just plain not true. Dr. Fauci testified publicly under oath that that's not true and he's right. We didn't do work that run against any of the rules.
GUPTA (voice-over): And Dr. Francis Collins helped to define those rules.
COLLINS: Let's be clear, there is no evidence that anything we funded did anything wrong.
GUPTA: He's the long-time director of the National Institutes of Health. He's also Dr. Fauci's boss.
COLLINS: There is no evidence that any gain of function research as we define it in the United States or as we have supported it played any role in this outbreak of COVID-19.
GUPTA: Gain of function research. It's a complicated and controversial topic that first rocked the scientific community a decade ago. UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Researchers in Wisconsin and the Netherlands working separately have created a form of the deadly bird flu virus that can easily spread from person-to-person.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The NIH funded the Dutch scientist who did something really wild. He engineered the Avian flu virus to make it more deadly to mammal by making it airborne.
GUPTA: When virologist Ron Fouchier revealed details of his research on the H5N1 bird flu virus, he called it, quote, "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."
DASZAK: In the lab, a scientist took that flu virus and infected ferrets.
BARIC: They created a virus like H5N1 which has a 50 percent mortality rate and they trained it how to be efficiently transmitted in mammals. And so that's scary.
GUPTA: That bird flu work which was partially funded by the NIH sparked a debate that led to a 2014 moratorium by the Obama administration. That pause was lifted in 2017. Under new rules gain of function research was given a very specific definition by the National Institutes of Health.
COLLINS: In the United States, gain of function research is that which works with a potential pandemic pathogen in a way for humans that could enhance its virulence or its transmissibility.
GUPTA (on-camera): Is this sort of gain of function research? Was it happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
BARIC: They're working on bats SARS like viruses that have never been shown to cause human infection.
GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Shi told "The New York Times," "My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting the gain of function experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses."
COLLINS: This is all very hypothetical. If the Wuhan Institute was somehow trying to manipulate a virus that had occurred in nature to make it even more dangerous to humans, that would be gain of function research, but I have no evidence that they did that.
CHAN: The research was that the sample viruses from the lab and predict pandemic in the future. So, it wasn't to make viruses more dangerous.
GUPTA: But maybe we're getting too hung up on the strict definition here. At the core of this debate is really this question -- do the benefits of this type of research outweigh any possible unforeseen and unusual risk?
RELMAN: How close are you getting towards the very thing that we most fear? The highly transmissible, highly virulent infectious agent for which we don't have a countermeasure.
GUPTA: Like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic.
(On-camera): This type of research, where you're actually taking the spike protein perhaps and putting in on the backbone of another virus, could that type of research be done in Wuhan Institute of Virology and potentially lead to a new pathogen?
COLLINS: Not SARS-CoV-2.
GUPTA: Do we know that for sure?
COLLINS: We know that the difference between the genome sequences were a million miles away from SARS-CoV-2. The backbone that they were using, the spike proteins they were using, there is no way that that was anywhere in the same universe as what emerged as SARS-CoV-2.
TAPPER: The U.S. intelligence community is back with its report ordered by President Biden on the origins of COVID. Their assessment has been deemed inconclusive.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you find anything?
CULVER: The Chinese have said they essentially have closed the door to any phase two of the WHO investigation.
GUPTA: Beijing has accused the U.S. of politicizing the pandemic, vehemently denying the possibility of a Wuhan lab leak.
ZHAO LUJIAN, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON (through translator): They U.S. should invite WHO experts to investigate Fort Detrick.
GUPTA: Chinese officials now call for the World Health Organization to investigate a lab leak at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute in Fort Detrick, Maryland, backed by an aggressive global social media campaign directed from Beijing. To be clear, there is zero evidence to support that notion.
VAN KERKHOVE: The politics of this have taken a life of its own. We need to bring it back to the science.
GUPTA: Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, spoke to us from Geneva.
(On-camera): One of the things that keeps coming back to you want science, you want evidence, you want data, the database of bat coronaviruses was taken down and blood samples from workers at the lab, they don't have access to those serologies. They can't do a forensics examination of the lab, but if they're not going to give the most basic data, how can it be science driven? VAN KERKHOVE: We need to work with the country. We can't extract something we don't have access to. This is true for China and it's true for SARS-CoV-2. It's true for the next one as well.
GUPTA (voice-over): The next pandemic. According to every scientist we spoke to it's not a question of if, it's a question of when. And the WHO says the newly formed scientific advisory group for the origins of novel pathogens known as SAGO may help them prepare for what's to come.
VAN KERKHOVE: The main purpose of the SAGO is to establish this overarching framework for future pathogens but for SARS-CoV-2, the first order of business for them is to evaluate where do we stand.
GUPTA (on-camera): But ultimately if the whole lynch pin is whether or not China agrees to all that, how is it going to work?
VAN KERKHOVE: We need collaboration with that member state to go into a country. We don't have a choice. And so, let's see how we can use this moment to build something stronger for the future.
GUPTA: Without a doubt the hunt for COVID's origins is a daunting task. It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But when it comes to a pandemic, the haystack is planet earth. Discovering answers requires identifying and uncovering microscopic scientific clues in this vast world. And while many scientists warned that we may never have a definitive answer, we keep searching with the hope that we can undoubtedly be better prepared for future pandemics.
Thanks for watching. Good night.