Former NIH Director admits lab-leak theory of COVID origin is not conspiracy theory


The leading public health official during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic admitted that the science is not settled on the origins of the coronavirus, according to transcripts from closed-door testimony released by House Republicans on Thursday.

The released transcripts reveal that former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins does not believe that the idea that the virus originated in a lab is a conspiracy theory, despite publicly denouncing the theory in 2020 and 2021.

Collins, who was the longest-serving NIH director, in office from 2009 to December 2021, was called before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic to provide transcribed interview testimony in January 2024 to explain his role in the scientific inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans have accused him and other public health officials of chilling debate.

Public health officials at the NIH during the initial stages of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 largely downplayed the theory that the virus may have originated from an incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China where scientists were conducting coronavirus research with U.S. taxpayer funding through a subgrant administered by the research firm EcoHealth Alliance.

Republicans on the Subcommittee directly asked Collins in the interview this year whether the coronavirus virus could have resulted from “a laboratory or research-related accident, a researcher doing something in the lab, getting infected with the virus, and then sparking the pandemic.” 

When asked whether or not this scenario was a conspiracy theory, Collins responded “not at this point.”

Collins also responded in the affirmative when asked by Republicans if “the origin of COVID-19 still unsettled science.”

Regardless of whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab or in a live-animal wet market, Collins told the Subcommittee, it is in the Chinese government’s best interest “for this to be unresolved.”

“If it was a lab leak, they’re responsible,” said Collins. “If it was a natural origin in a wet market that was selling wild animals that they were not supposed to be doing, they’re responsible. So they love it that this hasn’t gotten resolved.”

Other public health officials at NIH have also walked back early denouncement of the lab-leak theory of the origin of the coronavirus.

The Select Subcommittee held a hearing on Thursday with testimony from Lawrence Tabak, who served as acting director of NIH following Collins’s resignation, who agreed that the lab-leak theory of origin is not necessarily a conspiracy theory.

When asked by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) whether or not he believed the lab leak hypothesis was a conspiracy theory, Tabak replied that it is “just an alternate theory that needs to be considered.”


“While NIH is not an investigative agency, we do support scientific research into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and will continue to make this a priority,” said Tabak in his opening testimony. “We are open to all possibilities and will follow where the science leads us.”

Tabak told the Subcommittee that the NIH still maintains that the virus likely originated from a natural zoonotic spillover from the wet market in Wuhan because the virus is too genetically removed from the known samples of bat coronaviruses tested at the WIV under the NIH grant administered by EcoHealth Alliance. 

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