MacCallum pushes back on NIH chief denying he rejected lab-leak theory: 'You and Fauci jumped to conclusions'

Dr. Francis Collins says critics should heed Carl Sagan's mantra that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins denied ever rejecting the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China Wednesday on "The Story."

Collins, a geneticist and physician tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the Bethesda, Md. agency in 2009, rejected any claim that he dismissed the lab-leak theory out of hand in 2020.

Still, Collins maintains the most plausible explanation for the pandemic is that the virus spread through animal-to-human transmission.

He pointed to past coronaviruses such as Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) spreading to humans from dromedaries, while a previous iteration of SARS is believed to have been transmitted by civets, a cat-like mongoose relative native to the tropical latitudes of the Eastern Hemisphere. 

Host Martha MacCallum pushed back, pointing to partially-redacted emails released by BuzzFeed that included correspondence between Collins and Anthony Fauci, the head of the NIH's National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID).

MacCallum pressed Collins on the recently-released emails and whether he did or didn't downplay the lab-leak theory.

Collins replied that any references to "conspiracy theories" in the emails were meant to describe more colorful claims like that of China purportedly using a virus as part of an "engineered bioweapon."

"That doesn't fit with what we know about this particular viral genome. Another was that NIH had somehow been complicit in the generation of this dangerous virus. And I can tell you categorically that did not happen," he said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other critics have questioned Fauci on the NIAID's funding of the Wuhan lab, to which the virologist maintains he nor his agency has ever funded the "gain-of-function" research that may have been occurring there.

"Then there was this other idea that maybe it was an accident lab leak, that the institute had been studying this virus that had happened somehow in nature and it got loose," Collins continued. "I never rejected that one, although there was no evidence to support it."

Collins did assert that the theory needs more proof, saying, "Even the lab leak hypothesis, you know, Carl Sagan had this famous statement that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’," Collins said.

MacCallum pushed back, noting that there is no evidence that the virus was transmitted by an animal.

"There's still no evidence that it came from a zoonotic source, that it came from a natural source has not been proven at this point," she said. "Were you aware that there were three scientists that were ill with covid like symptoms in November of twenty nineteen at the Wuhan lab?"

Collins responded that he knew there were ill patients at the time, but not how many.

"Why didn't that cause you to say, you know, we really need to find out exactly what these people had in November of 2019 and why they visited the hospital?" she followed up.

"[W]e knew back last year that there had been some possibility of laboratory workers who had fallen ill, most likely with the flu or some other benign illness. But it was a fact that was known out there. Let's just be clear here, Martha," Collins replied. "I don't think we know what happened in Wuhan. It is possible there was a lab leak. But again, that's an extraordinary claim. What we need then is to have an evidence-based, expert-driven investigation."


MacCallum noted that, "the biggest question that people have right now is why it seems like you and Dr. Fauci both jump to the conclusion very early on that any [explanation] that this could be a lab leak was something that we were all waved off of."

"I deny that you were waved off of that by me. I would say you were waved off of some more outrageous conspiracy theories that had really no categorical sense to them," Collins responded.