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Virologist says COVID origin report could make it harder to study dangerous diseases

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

One of the several government efforts to unravel one of those mysteries, COVID-19's origin story, was centered at the Energy Department. That agency's assessment, described as low confidence, was that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in China. Angela Rasmussen is a principal research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. She says the report could make it harder to study dangerous diseases.

Professor, I checked your Twitter feed moments before we started, and I see a couple of things. You're a fan of pugs, the Seattle Seahawks and you have a pinned tweet to an article that explains why the pandemic began from nature. So I'm assuming you doubt the Energy Department's conclusion. Why?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So I doubt the Energy Department's conclusion simply because I haven't seen the evidence. It's been described as low confidence, and I just don't see how something - whatever it is - that is low confidence could really contradict that large pile of scientific evidence that does suggest that the pandemic began at the Huanan Seafood Market through zoonotic spillover.

MARTÍNEZ: What evidence would be needed for you to trust their assessment?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. So I've actually discussed this quite a bit, and I've been thinking a lot about it. And I think that the one thing that would convince me that it did come from a lab would be the intelligence community being able to place what we call a progenitor virus at any lab in Wuhan, and that would be the virus that existed immediately before becoming SARS coronavirus two. So whether it's from an animal, whether it was naturally collected, whether it was made through molecular virology work, there is no virus that we know of that is in possession of anybody that was the immediate precursor to SARS coronavirus two. If that could be placed in a lab, that would completely change my thinking. That would be evidence of a laboratory origin. But so far, that evidence has not been available. And I really doubt that that is the evidence that the Department of Energy has because, if it were, it would not be a low-confidence finding.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you allow for any wiggle room for the argument that COVID's origins are unresolved?

RASMUSSEN: I actually don't. And I think that the statement that it is unresolved is really from people who haven't been able to engage thoroughly with the evidence that we do have. So the only evidence that suggests that it might have come from a lab is the fact that the pandemic began in Wuhan, where there happens to be a coronavirus lab. However, there's many cities in China and throughout the rest of the world, including Canada, including the U.S., where there are labs that do this. If it was from a lab, it could have been from any one of those. However, we have a lot of evidence that does suggest that it was from the market.

MARTÍNEZ: So when you hear these other theories, how does that make you feel as a virologist? Because I could hear it all the time, people saying, well, you're not even open to the possibility that science can change - that these answers maybe evolve.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah, that's probably one of the most frustrating aspects of it. So myself and all of my colleagues who authored that paper that you mentioned at the beginning that is the pinned tweet - the paper that really shows the evidence that it did begin at the Huanan Market - I think we're all open to the fact that evidence could emerge that shows that it didn't come from the market - that it came from a lab. And I think every good scientist is going to be open to that. That's literally our job - is to try to make our hypotheses not true, to falsify them - as my colleague says, to kick the tires of those hypotheses and see if they work. And so far, that hypothesis about the market origin has stood up.

I think it's very frustrating to have people assume that we make a decision sort of arbitrarily, and then we stick with that no matter what. I think we're always willing to change our hypotheses should new information come in, and it would be great to see what information the Department of Energy is using to make their decision.

MARTÍNEZ: Angela Rasmussen is a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan. Thank you very much.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you so much, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.