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Trump CDC head, now adviser to Maryland Gov. Hogan, shares unproven belief that COVID escaped from lab in China; lawmakers condemn statements

Dr. Robert Redfield, who led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Donald Trump and currently serves as an unpaid adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, said he believes the coronavirus “most likely” escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China — a claim that has been circulated widely but remains unproven.

Redfield’s comments, disclosed Friday in an interview with CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, prompted one of the Maryland legislature’s presiding officers and Asian-American political leaders to call on Hogan to break his ties with Redfield if the former CDC head does not retract his comments or apologize.

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“Dr. Redfield’s comments were inappropriate, unacceptable and beyond unfortunate,” Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, said Friday afternoon, hours after Redfield’s statements went public. “To think that somebody that is advising the governor would traffic in inappropriate assumptions based not on facts, but on gut or instinct, or whatever it may have been — it’s unacceptable.’ "

In the interview, which dates to February, Redfield, a virologist, said he believed human work in a laboratory facilitated the evolution of the virus to the version that caused the pandemic.

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“I’m allowed to have opinions now,” Redfield said in the interview. “Other people don’t believe that ― that’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”

Last month, the World Health Organization said they would end their investigation into the “lab leak” theory, citing a lack of evidence supporting the claim. The agency and other researchers believe the virus developed naturally, and transferred from animals to humans.

Still, Redfield said he thought the virus escaped from a research lab, adding that he was not implying it was intentionally released. He said the virus’ lethality and contagiousness were so severe that it may not have turned up organically.

“I just don’t think this makes biological sense,” Redfield told Gupta.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference in Annapolis after Gov. Larry Hogan, left, announced he would be a senior adviser on the state's COVID response.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference in Annapolis after Gov. Larry Hogan, left, announced he would be a senior adviser on the state's COVID response. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Sun)

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the administration stood by Redfield.

“Just as CNN’s anchors had a thoughtful discussion about Dr. Redfield’s perspective, all of us can do the same too,” Ricci said in an email.

The Maryland Department of Health declined to comment on Redfield’s discussion with Gupta.

Redfield came on as an adviser to the Republican governor this month, helping to oversee Maryland’s vaccine rollout, its response to the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants and how to safely reopen the state.

“I have always emphasized how important it is to follow the science and to get the very best advice from the medical experts, and we’re very fortunate to have such a renowned expert as Dr. Redfield,” Hogan said upon Redfield’s appointment.

The former CDC director could not be reached Friday for further comment.

Ricci said Redfield’s belief about the virus’ origins did not have any influence on how the administration was handling the coronavirus pandemic now.

But Maryland lawmakers were quick to denounce Redfield’s statements, calling them unproductive, inflammatory and not grounded in evidence.

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she hoped the Hogan administration would focus on the vaccine rollout, rather than on “spreading conspiracy theories.”

The debate about the source of the virus came amid a presidential administration that shared a number of theories and beliefs that were later debunked as false or misleading. Trump’s wavering on wearing face coverings, his insistence on labeling the coronavirus the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu,” and his endorsement of unauthorized treatments to eradicate the disease, helped fuel a rise in misinformation and disinformation, as well as anti-Asian sentiment.

“The rise in bias, discrimination and hate aimed at Asian Americans over the past year can be directly attributable to the racially politicized and weaponized rhetoric that we’ve heard over the past year,” said Maryland state Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician. “I would urge the former director to retract his remarks or reconsider his active involvement in our response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.”

On the Maryland Senate floor, state Sen. Susan Lee called Redfield’s comments “disturbing,” saying they contributed to a “very toxic and dangerous climate that could subject us to violence and hate crimes.”

“People in my community, they’re terrified, they’re frightened just to take a walk outside,” said Lee, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County. “When persons in very high office or in our public trust make statements like this that are not substantiated — especially during a pandemic — it creates a very toxic and dangerous climate that could subject us to violence and hate crimes. It puts a big bullseye on the backs of those in our community.”

Surveying data in 16 of America’s largest cities, the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community increased more than 100% in 2020. The San Francisco nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, for Asian American and Pacific Islanders, received reports of nearly 3,300 incidents — harassment, assaults, workplace discrimination, internet trolling, shunning — against Asian Americans last year.

In Maryland, Hogan — whose wife and children are Korean-American — has condemned the rise in violence on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, saying discrimination had touched his family.

Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, said the governor did not think Redfield’s comment would give rise to anti-Asian violence or conspiracy theories.

“In the segment, Dr. Redfield expressly states that he is not implying any intentionality, and is speaking from his perspective as a virologist,” Ricci said.

The World Health Organization sent a team of investigators to Wuhan in January to collect more evidence about the origins of the outbreak. At a news conference, Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety and animal diseases expert, said the team’s conclusions about the zoonotic, or animal-based, nature of the virus did not change.

“Since there is usually limited close contact between humans and bats, it is more likely that transmission of the virus to humans happened through another animal species, one that is more likely to be handled by humans. This intermediate animal host or zoonotic source could be a domestic animal, a wild animal, or a domesticated wild animal and, as of yet, has not been identified,” WHO guidance published last April says.

“All the published genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 isolated from human cases are very similar. This suggests that the start of the outbreak resulted from a single point introduction in the human population around the time that the virus was first reported in humans in Wuhan, China in December 2019.”

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Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said in an interview with CBS News’ “Face The Nation” on Friday that Redfield’s opinion was at odds with that of most of the scientific and public health community.

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He said the virus may have spread undetected for about a month until the first case was reported, allowing it to adapt itself to “greater efficiency and transmissibility” until it was recognized.

“There are other alternatives,” Fauci said in response to Redfield’s claims. “Others that most people hold by.”

Current CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency looks forward to reviewing WHO’s updated report, which hasn’t been published yet.

The WHO said the discussion about the virus’ source is important as it can help researchers understand best prevention methods.

Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and a public health professor at the George Washington University, said leaders needed to proceed with caution until more facts surface.

“This is a shocking and very serious allegation from the former head of the CDC and a noted virologist,” Wen said.

Redfield left the CDC post in January, and Hogan said he planned to return to Maryland, where he cofounded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology and served as chief of infectious disease and vice chair of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Redfield’s leadership of the CDC under Trump came under scrutiny during the pandemic. The Trump administration was criticized for being slow to respond and for providing inconsistent messaging about COVID-19.

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