Last week, CNN aired an interview during which former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield said that COVID-19 “most likely” originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. This was unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which being that it’s probably untrue. Most leading experts have dismissed the theory of accidental infection of a lab worker (deliberate release by the Chinese government is strictly the province of QANon conspiracy theorists) as doubtful, including the World Health Organization. A new 120-page WHO report on the origins of the pandemic issued Tuesday also calls the possibility that it was released accidentally from a lab “extremely unlikely.” The report has drawn criticism, of course, from the WHO director-general and others, mostly because of limits placed on the investigation by the Chinese government. But that doesn’t change how there’s a distinct lack of evidence to back Dr. Redfield’s claim.
But here’s where it gets especially problematic. Dr. Redfield now serves as an unpaid adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan and the U.S. is experiencing a significant upsurge in attacks against Asian Americans. It’s one thing to believe in dubious theories. It’s another to stand by them when they are feeding the mob. Governor Hogan, through his spokesman Michael Ricci, saw nothing wrong with his adviser expressing this opinion. “Just as CNN’s anchors had a thoughtful discussion about Dr. Redfield’s perspective, all of us can do the same too,” Mr. Ricci told The Sun. Apparently, the possibility that this particular opinion — for which Dr. Redfield provided no actual evidence in his CNN appearance, only the thought that the virus seemed too lethal to him to have transferred naturally from animals to humans — had to be expressed at this moment means little to the governor.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been experiencing something of an epidemic of hate crimes directed at Asians, particularly women, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent attack in Atlanta that took the lives of eight, including six Asian women, is just the most high-profile case. The advocacy group, Stop AAPI Hate, has estimated nearly 3,800 hate crimes and overt discrimination against Asians and Pacific Islanders from March 2020 through February 2021. And former President Donald Trump’s insistence that COVID-19 be constantly described in terms such as the “China Virus” or “Kung Flu” surely emboldened his white nationalist wing. What had been a long-standing bigotry was given a boost by a president already given to racism and xenophobia.
Governor Hogan gets this. He’s been outspoken on the subject of anti-Asian behavior. And he was also critical at various times of President Trump’s public health policies that were often too little, too late. Or downright counterproductive and anti-science. That made his association with Dr. Redfield all the more unusual. Dr. Redfield may have run the CDC, but as a Trump appointee, he rarely contradicted Mr. Trump’s most foolhardy actions and comments on the subject of the coronavirus, at least not publicly. That track record alone should have precluded him from service in Maryland.
Don’t forget, the Trump administration did a lousy job and its reluctance to take serious action early in the pandemic — simply telling Americans to wear masks, for example — cost this nation dearly. Don’t take our word for it. Also presented on the same CNN program was an interview with Dr. Deborah Birx during which she lamented that most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. (hundreds of thousands of them) could have been prevented had the U.S. taken more aggressive actions sooner. The former White House coronavirus response coordinator should have spoken out months ago. She chose not to do so. Is Dr. Redfield’s circumstance any different? Should he not have spoken out more forcefully against the threat then and held his tongue now?
Perhaps there will come a moment when researchers identify with absolute certainty the first human case of COVID-19. That might be an interesting academic exercise. But here in the real world where fighting the virus and fighting animus toward Asians are both important public health duties, blurting out theories about Chinese labs seems singularly unproductive. And frankly, so is elevating someone so closely associated with Mr. Trump’s pandemic response failures to a high-profile position of governor’s adviser. Johns Hopkins had no one to fill that role? The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda? Maybe the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Dr. Robert Gallo, discoverer of the AIDS virus, was unavailable?
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson last week described Dr. Redfield’s remarks as inappropriate and unacceptable. So have others in Annapolis who have called on them to at least be retracted. We agree. If they are not, Mr. Hogan ought to think about what message he is sending with this choice for a top adviser.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.