In an interview with CNN set to air March 28, former Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China and likely started spreading sometime between September and October 2019.
In a teaser clip released Friday ahead of the documentary’s airing, Redfield told CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, “If I had to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September or October in Wuhan.”
“I’m of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory — escaped,” Redfield added. “Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”
Redfield’s assessment comes just weeks after his role as CDC director ended. He served in the position from March 2018 to Jan. 20, 2021, the day President Joe Biden took office. No longer serving as a government official, Redfield said he is now free to share his opinion on the outbreak. He said his assessment that the virus began spreading in September or October 2019 “is my own view, it’s only an opinion,” adding “I’m allowed to have opinions now.”
Redfield’s comments to CNN are the first time he has appeared to publicly endorse the Wuhan laboratory outbreak theory as a point of origin for COVID-19.
“It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker,” Redfield said.
“That’s not implying any intentionality. It’s my opinion, right?,” Redfield continued. “But I am a virologist. I have spent my life in virology. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in time, that the virus came to the human, became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission.”
Redfield said that normally when viruses transmit from one species to another “it takes a while for [a virus] to figure out how to become more and more efficient in human-to-human transmission” and said he doesn’t think the theory that the virus transmitted highly efficiently from a bat host to a humans makes biological sense. Redfield said in a lab setting, virologists would have been able to alter a virus’s transmissibility and make it transmit “better and better so we can do experiments and figure out about it.”
Throughout 2020, President Donald Trump and other members of his administration also raised the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. In January, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. State Department issued a fact sheet showing links between COVID-19 and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Among the fact sheet’s claims were that the WIV had conducted experiments on bat coronaviruses including a strain with a 96.2% genetic similarity to SARS-CoV-2, another medical designation for COVID-19.
In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) called the Wuhan laboratory outbreak theory “extremely unlikely.” That assessment drew criticism from Pompeo, who questioned whether the WHO was really able to investigate the WIV or if it was instead bowing to political pressure from China. Just days after his criticism, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said all hypotheses about the origin of the virus remain open.
Redfield’s suggestion that the virus began spreading in September or October pushes the timeline forward for when the outbreak began. The WHO’s official COVID-19 timeline recorded the first public disclosures about the virus outbreak in late December 2019.