Setting the record straight on Redfield, racism and the origins of COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Dr. Robert Redfield, who served as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, appears before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/New York Times).

“I think the most upsetting thing to me was The Baltimore Sun calling me a racist because I said this came from a Wuhan lab.”

Those words came out of the mouth of Dr. Robert Redfield, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toward the end of a three-hour hearing conducted Wednesday morning by the select House subcommittee investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus. It was in response to a question from U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio about whether scientists who espoused the theory of a Chinese lab leak, as Redfield had in a 2021 CNN interview, were branded as “crackpots” by other scientists.


When Redfield made his comments — at the height of concerns over an uptick in violence against Asian people in this country, we might add — he was no longer a federal employee, but an unpaid adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan, and Maryland officials came down on him hard. Senate President Bill Ferguson deemed Redfield’s comments “inappropriate, unacceptable and beyond unfortunate.” House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones accused him of “spreading conspiracy theories.” State Sen. Susan Lee said Redfield was furthering a “very toxic and dangerous climate that could subject us to violence and hate crimes.” And Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot called for the state to sever ties with Redfield, saying his comments were “especially concerning and reckless as hate crimes and bigotry against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have skyrocketed over the last year.”

But it was The Sun that Redfield singled out before Congress, claiming we called him “racist.” His remark received some attention on social media and raised the question: Did The Sun actually write that?


No. But the editorial board did raise the issue of race, and how Redfield’s comments could fuel racism. In an editorial, the board pointed out the link between the rise in discrimination directed toward Asian Americans and irresponsible rhetoric blaming China for causing the pandemic, including former President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” (“Hogan top COVID adviser Redfield tosses viral kindling on anti-Asian fires,” March 30, 2021). And we would do it again.

Then, as now, the origins of COVID-19 were unclear, and our critique was, essentially: Why point a finger then, when you have no conclusive knowledge and it’s likely to spur more anti-Asian sentiment from those looking for reasons to hate others? From March 2020 to March 2021, when Redfield spoke, anti-Asian hate incidents, from verbal harassment to physical assault, nearly doubled. It did not help the doctor’s case that the World Health Organization had published its conclusion that the lab leak was “extremely unlikely” the same week he decided it was “most likely.”

We’ll give Redfield, who is now employed by the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, this: The view he expressed in March of 2021 is better supported today than it was then by ongoing fact-gathering, although the matter is still far from settled. Redfield himself acknowledged the continuing uncertainty during the hearing, suggesting at one point that a proper investigation of the origin of COVID-19 would best be done by the intelligence community and not those assembled in the House on Wednesday. Indeed, for all the speculation advanced during the morning talkathon, the whole thing could be distilled to this: We still don’t know exactly how the coronavirus originated, but we ought to find out.

In our 2021 editorial, we also asked that Redfield retract his comments. And if we erred anywhere, it’s there. It’s not retraction, nor censoring of scientific ideas, we want. It’s responsible discussion and fact-based analysis. The political polarization of COVID has led individuals to feel personally attacked by science supporting various views, which gives those in the know a greater responsibility to back up their claims and choose their words wisely. That includes us.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.