An Interview With Dr. Peter Daszak

Here is the transcript of my interview with Dr. Peter Daszak, the lone U.S. member of a team from the World Health Organization that traveled to Wuhan, China, to study the origins of the pandemic. It has been edited for clarity.

One thing I think a lot of people wonder about is, how is this sort of investigation even possible this long after the fact? If you were talking in terms of forensic detective work, you might say that a year along the trail is in danger of going cold. How did you go about picking up that trail again?

Yeah, it’s interesting—if you want to use the detective analogy, this isn’t a cold case. All the evidence is still there. We went to Wuhan seafood market, you look down on the floor, there’s a discarded knife that’s rusting. And you think, well, what is that? Is that a fish knife, or is it a knife you’d use to butcher a mammal? So you’re thinking about all these clues—you look in the stalls, there were definitely a lot of freezers. They sold a lot of frozen food. And then you look at the infrastructure—is it brand new? Is it old and decrepit? Is it something that would be crowded and busy? How will the disease spread in this place? So there’s a lot you can glean.

And then we have patients who are still there, who you can interview; we have people who work there you can interview. And we have samples—not ‘we,’ but the China team has samples that they can go back and retest, they can find the data from the connections, there’s a lot you can do.

To my layman’s eye, the most interesting finding you hit upon was a concrete path of possible transmission—not that you’d detected the actual presence of the virus in animals sold at the Wuhan market, but that you’d found a concrete link between animals known to be possible carriers that had come from areas populated by bats with similar coronaviruses. Can you sketch out why that is a novel finding and how it informs our understanding of the disease’s origins?

I’ve been following this from day one, and we knew that the market was cleaned out, basically. It was closed down; everyone was told take your stuff, leave. So the team then came in and they wanted to test products and animals and meat, swab down the place and see where the virus was in relation to the cases. So normally, in a live animal market, you would go in and take samples from live animals and see if they were infected. That’s what happened with the SARS virus, the original virus.

But this time it’s an empty market, we’re not sure if there were live animals there at all, and we don’t know what was there. So you’re left with what you can get.

What I was looking for when we went through those data with the team who did the environmental swabbing was, were there any animals in the market or any evidence of animals that we know are able to be affected by SARS-related coronaviruses? If so, that’s a sort of red flag straight away.

Okay, so they had animals that could be carriers. And then the other thing you’re looking for is, is there a link between that market and the places where a natural reservoir, a bat, would be carrying something like SARS-CoV-2. And now we know that the closest relatives to SARS-CoV-2 are 1,000d miles away. And this has been a long-discussed thing, over a year now: How can a virus from 1,000 miles get into this place? Well, here’s a possibility: Now we’ve seen animals that we know can be infected with coronaviruses were in the market. They’re dead; they’re carcasses. But we don’t know when they were killed, we don’t know if live ones were brought in. They were negative when tested, but we don’t know if other ones were there that were positive.

And then we looked at the supply chains, and sure enough, we saw really solid evidence of multiple stalls in that market sourcing their product from places where bats carry close relatives of SARS-CoV-2. I mean, that is a connection. It’s not a smoking gun, but it’s certainly a connection. It needs follow up.

The bottom line, that’s what I was looking for on the animal side: Is there a potential of a pathway there? Absolutely.

This was a joint effort on the part of your team and a team of Chinese scientists—can you talk about what the DIVISION OF CARRIES looked like, with you coming in and them having been working on this stuff for a while?

Yeah, it’s not easy. We didn’t do the data collection. I hadn’t been to China since October before the outbreak, so my work in China stopped there. So this is what Chinese scientists have done, and then foreigners come in and say ‘show me the data.’ It’s not a good situation.

Now, for me, it was a lot easier, because some of the people I was working with on the animal investigations were colleagues of mine, scientists I’ve researched with. So I think they were a bit more open to, you know, showing me what they’ve done, and if there’s something they needed to do more of, it’s not a big deal, it’s not a criticism. So that’s the sort of psychology going through there. And we did sit down and look through new data from day one. You know, we haven’t talked much about it because we’re trying not to undermine the study as we go through; it’s this very sensitive issue of sharing information. They’ve been showing us new information about the market from day one of our trip, even before we got here. And every single day we found something new.

The question of where the virus originated is one that has reverberations beyond just the world of medicine; the Chinese government has been frequently criticized over the past year for its attempts to lock down flows of information and research about the origins of the virus. You’ve said by contrast that your team and your research was not blocked at any turn.

On this trip, no. But we know it’s sensitive. We know there are big, big politics, like geopolitical forces. And you’ve got a feeling like these huge geopolitical forces are bearing down right onto you, right onto our team on this issue. So we know how sensitive it is. You’re so aware of that.

But I didn’t really expect that we would be able to get to every place we asked for; I thought there would be something that was a bit too sensitive. But no, every place we asked to visit we got to. Everyone we wanted to see we could meet with.

Now, sure, you’ve got to read between the lines on some stuff; you’ve got to be careful about over-concluding from what you see. But we asked tough questions. We got right to the heart of some key issues, for instance around the lab release hypothesis, and really dug in. And not just me: you’ve got 18, 17 experts on this trip who really know their stuff on outbreaks. So every lab we visited, every hospital we went to, we had experts that could ask the key questions. That’s a really deep study, even though it was a short time.

You mentioned the lab release hypothesis. During your press conference today, your team said it had ruled out one of the four hypotheses you investigated—that the virus had been accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan. There were a number of conspiracy theories surrounding that hypothesis early on, but also some kernels of circumstantial evidence—the Washington Post reported last April that U.S. officials had raised concerns about safety protocols at the lab a few years prior. Why did you feel so confident that you were able to rule out that line of inquiry?

Well, the conclusion was that it’s extremely unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 originated in the lab, whether through accidental release or bioengineered weapon. The way we did that was we looked at all the data, all the evidence, all the theories that are out there; we visited the key labs involved; we spoke to researchers who are central to that. And then we all discussed it, both on the U.S. and other countries’ side, the WHO side, and on the China side.

Now, the way I did it—I’m someone who knows the labs, who’s worked here for so long. So I waited—I sort of stepped back and let everybody else debate and discuss and come to a conclusion. And then I put in my opinion. And it was a unanimous opinion. So I think that’s something pretty important.

There is really no evidence of a lab release, no evidence other than the proximity of the lab to the market, or the fact that the lab’s in Wuhan. But there are many labs in China. It’s circumstantial. There’s really no evidence.

Now, the reason why this became such an issue—I think there was a lot of politics. There’s a lot of concern about these biosafety places; people see a locked facility that they’re not allowed in, and their mind starts to wander, and they start to come up with these conspiracies. But to be fair, there have been lab leaks in the past, including in China, in the U.S., in many other countries, including of SARS, and including at biosecurity labs at different levels.

So there’s something possible when you talk about that. But when we looked into the Wuhan Institute of Virology in particular, it’s a very well-run, state-of-the-art facility without a doubt. There’s no evidence that the virus was there. There’s no evidence that the sort of work they were doing involved culturing viruses that could have led to SARS-CoV-2. It’s just not there; the evidence isn’t there. What more can you say?

Another one of those hypotheses that you discussed was the notion that the virus could have come into Wuhan via frozen food from elsewhere. That theory has been criticized as something that the Chinese government has been pushing to deflect international scrutiny; it’s been posited as though it’s established fact by Chinese state media. Where did you guys come down on investigating that theory?

It’s called the “cold chain theory” over here, and it’s widely put out as a potential explanation for two or three outbreaks that China’s had after the initial outbreak. I think in those cases, I think everybody in the group felt that this was possible, so we should look into it. There was a big outbreak in Xinfadi Market in Beijing, where it looks like cold chain played a significant role: Somebody coughing onto a surface, the virus persists longer because it’s cold, and people get infected by contaminated food.

Quite possibly—some really good, elegant work that supports that. Maybe even the origin of that outbreak. But when you’re talking about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 right now, it seems less likely, but still possible. I mean, you can’t rule it out right now. So we felt like it needed further work.

Scientists in China have been talking a lot about the early cases discovered around the world through various evidence of serology, PCR, all the rest of it. That needs to be looked at; people need to go test those samples, validate them, decide whether it’s a real finding or not. And if not, then we don’t need to look at that further. But we do think further work needs to be done.

My gut feeling is that natural origin from bats in Southeast Asia is really strongly supported by the literature. We know today even, another new virus was reported from a bat in Thailand that’s very close to SARS-CoV-2. And we think that that’s probably more likely; I think that’s the way it went in the final conclusion.

Just to get back, then, to the cold case question—you say more work needs to be done on this specific question, but when it comes to determining the origin of this specific virus, what would that work look like at this stage? Is this a question that we’re actually likely to get to the bottom of, or is there a good chance it just gets swept unknowably into the past?

No, I think we’ll get there. I mean, no one will ever know exactly what happened to the person and the place and the time. That’s really hard; it’s very rare that you get that with outbreaks. … One of the things we’ll need to do is look at bat reservoirs where they’re wildlife in Southeast Asia, not just China, and say, where are the closest relatives? Are they even closer now to Southeast Asia, with more and more viruses out there being discovered? Somewhere out there there’s a colony of bats with the progenitor, the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2. It needs to be found. Probably bats.

Then we need to trace back from the farm. So if we’ve got evidence of animals coming into the farm of the type that can carry coronaviruses, from farms in further southern regions where we know these viruses exist, can we connect those two things? That will happen. It will take some time. Some of it will come quicker; some of it might take a year, two years. We will get there, I’m sure—the scientific community, that is.

Are you hopeful that with this project that you guys have just completed, that that might signal Chinese willingness to allow more of that kind of international research into exactly those questions?

Well, you know, I’ve seen the emotion on the ground in Wuhan, and it is eye-opening, to be honest. People have been traumatized by the outbreak here in Wuhan. They went through a 70-plus day lockdown in their apartments. Not big apartments, you know. That’s a brutal thing. I spent two weeks in a luxury hotel room; that was hard enough. So there’s a lot of emotion around this. And I think that people in Wuhan have been stigmatized and blamed. And we heard that from them: You know, community leaders said, “we hope our reputation can be brought back.” I do think that opening the door like this, allowing us in, allowing us to look at the evidence, new evidence, and even the sensitive evidence around the lab release, is a big sign of progress.

Now, there’s lots to do. These studies aren’t cheap; they’re going to have to be funded. These studies aren’t easy, the logistics aren’t easy, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic still. So it’s not going to be straightforward, and there are still lots of politics around. But I really urge the global community to let the science lead the way forward and leave the politics to one side. They are not helpful.

You talked earlier about cables from a reporter—the cables were leaked, but they weren’t shown. They were selectively leaked to suggest safety issues in the Wuhan lab. I know the issue very well, because I was part of the initiation of that embassy visit to the Wuhan lab. When the cables eventually came out, there was nothing there—pretty clearly used for geopolitical purposes. It was not an inspection of a lab that found safety issues; it was a trip from an embassy to promote U.S.-China research, that could have been a trip where funding would have been discussed.

So the lab techs talked about, we need more lab techs. We can’t operate safely with this number; we need more. Of course! That’s what you do when funders come round to visit. So I just think we’ve got to be realistic. If otherwise plausible reporters are going to put out information that’s incomplete, with a political bias, and then that sticks, that’s going to have consequences.

And the consequences here for the geopolitics are lack of access. Our projects on the ground in China have been on hold for over a year because of this politicization. I believe this is hopefully the beginning of an end to that frosty relationship. We’ve got a new administration in the U.S. We need to collaborate to understand why pandemics emerge. And if they emerge in countries that aren’t our best allies, we still have to collaborate, because it’s to our benefit in the U.S. It’s to our country’s national security benefit to stop these outbreaks before they even leave the country they originate in. Look what happened with COVID. Let’s not let it happen again.

On those cables, I did want to ask—a few days after that Washington Post story came out back in April, you gave an interview to Democracy Now, and you said then that “the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is pure baloney.” Again, there were a lot of conspiracy theories flying around at that time, but what was it that made you so confident at that early date that the hypothesis was a non-starter?

Well, the cables were baloney. I knew that; I knew people who had seen them. And when you read the cables, it praises the work we were doing there as very useful science to protect public health. So it’s politics. The other thing that was baloney was this bioengineered idea, which we know, there’s pretty good evidence that there’s nothing to see on that issue. But my other, deeper knowledge is, working with that lab in Wuhan for 15 years, talking to technicians, having our staff embedded in that lab, you learn a lot. There was no cover-up. There was no “you can’t come in this room, you can’t see that data.” We had our staff working in that lab! I mean, that’s significant.

I met with the same scientists over and over again over that time period. You hear the same stories. And you’re looking to see, is there consistency, as you look back on it? Absolutely—I never got a strange feeling that I was being told one thing, then something else. There was no hidden agenda; there was no hidden laboratory. It just had nothing to it. And it also had a politicization element that was driven by—let’s face it—a pretty strong anti-China agenda from the Trump administration and the right-wing press. It’s still going on in the right-wing press.

So it was baloney then. What we’ve got now is a WHO team who’ve come in, independent experts who looked at the evidence, who talked to the people there. We asked the exact questions that all the folks who want to know about this would have asked, directly to Shi Zhengli, the person who did this work who’s been accused for a year of having these issues. And we got the right answers; we got frank, open, and honest answers. And then everybody else made their opinion known and it was a unanimous opinion, which I think is very important. There were no abstainers, no one who said no, I disagree. Unanimously decided this was extremely unlikely. I think the case is closed on that.

You mentioned the politicization and even misinformation that has been flying thick and fast for the past year or so. I do wonder whether you see daylight between the Chinese government—because of course they themselves have political aims—between the government and state media, which is an organ of the government, and the scientists and researchers that you’ve worked closely with.

Oh yeah. I mean, look: If you’re working closely with the same people for 15 years, you get to know them. They’ve been to the U.S.; we’ve spoken openly about politics. We’ve spoken openly about the Communist party. We’ve spoken openly about state media, about VPNs and Twitter and all that stuff. I mean, it’s not that difficult to have those conversations if you’ve got the trust of the people you’re talking to. And that’s something very valuable. And I think that’s something that the Trump administration really missed on this issue—that having people on the ground in countries that you don’t quite fully trust their agenda actually gives you some intelligence that otherwise you don’t have. And I think that’s the real problem. And I’m not talking about security intelligence; I’m talking about pandemic intelligence. We need to treat these pandemics as an existential threat to our citizens and our planets. And if we’re not going to go to these places and really get a deep understanding of what’s going on, it’s us that lose. We don’t have access to the knowledge about viruses that could emerge. That’s what needs to change. And I’m really looking forward to helping change that.