Speed Reads

COVID-19 origin story

WSJ: 3 Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers believed to seek hospital care in November 2019

A previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report says three researchers from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology got sick enough to visit the hospital in November 2019, around the time the COVID-19 outbreak first appeared in its Wuhan epicenter, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. The report "could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the COVID-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory," the Journals says.

A State Department fact sheet released Jan. 15, in the final days of the Trump administration, said several researchers at the lab became sick in the fall of 2019 "with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness." That fact sheet was based on U.S. intelligence, the Journal says. Current and former U.S. officials differed on how credible the more specific, newly reported intelligence is, though they agreed it doesn't indicate what caused any researchers to fall ill.

"It isn't unusual for people in China to go straight to the hospital when they fall sick, either because they get better care there or lack access to a general practitioner," the Journal says. Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who was part of a World Health Organization team that visited WIV to study the pandemic's origins, told NBC News earlier this year "there were occasional illnesses" at the lab "because that's normal" in the fall, adding, "It's certainly not a big, big thing."

The WHO team said it's "extremely unlikely" the new coronavirus leaked from the lab into the public, and much more likely it spread to humans from bats via an intermediary mammal, but they did not get access to some significant raw data; WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for more investigation of the lab leak hypothesis. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have said the theory needs more investigation, though "the debate is still colored by political tensions," the Journal says. China and the WIV maintain the virus did not leak from the lab.

Politics aside, Politico spoke with several experts last week — molecular biologists, virologists, and an evolutionary biologist — about the lab leak theory, and they split between arguing it's possible and explaining why it's very unlikely. You can read their reasoning at Politico.