Story at a glance

  • Alina Chan is one of 18 experts who signed a letter in May calling for a thorough investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
  • Although Chan voiced her support for an investigation into the possibility of a lab leak in early 2020, she told NBC experts were careful not to lean too close to views linked to the former president.
  • The lab leak theory, which hypothesizes that the novel coronavirus accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has gained traction in recent weeks.

A Canadian scientist and Harvard postdoctoral associate said colleagues might have feared vocalizing support for the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis out of concern that it would be viewed as showing support for potentially inflammatory views espoused by former President Trump. 

Alina Chan is one of 18 experts who signed a letter in May calling for a thorough exploration into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Although Chan voiced her support for an investigation into the possibility of a lab leak early in the pandemic, she told NBC that experts were careful not to lean too close to views linked to the former president. 

"At the time, it was scarier to be associated with Trump and to become a tool for racists, so people didn't want to publicly call for an investigation into lab origins," she said.

The lab leak theory, which hypothesizes that the novel coronavirus accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has gained traction in recent weeks. Circumstantial evidence, including a Wall Street Journal report that three researchers at the Wuhan lab fell ill in November 2019, challenge the conventional theory that the virus jumped species naturally. This has led President Biden and other world leaders to call for further investigations


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Additionally, Chan called for an investigation early in 2020 into the virus’ origins, and published a paper suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 had “developed several advantageous adaptations for human transmission” by the time it was first detected.

Chan cautioned, however, that despite emerging calls for fresh investigations, there is not a singular piece of evidence that definitely proves the lab leak theory. 

"I know a lot of people want to have a smoking gun," Chan told NBC. "It's more like breadcrumbs everywhere, and they're not always leading in one direction. It's like the whole floor is covered in breadcrumbs."

But the Harvard and MIT credentialed expert believes last month’s letter opened the door for fellow scientists to step away from fears of guilt by association, adding that the letter might offer credibility to alternative theories. 

"I think it had a big effect," Chan told NBC. "I think it literally helped all the people who wanted to investigate this by saying: This is not bogus. Top scientists think this is plausible."


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Published on Jun 18, 2021