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Redfield’s virus comments spur criticism in Md. state Senate

Dr. Robert Redfield talks to reporters on March 2 following the announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan that he would be advising Hogan on the pandemic. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Dr. Robert Redfield talks to reporters on March 2 following the announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan that he would be advising Hogan on the pandemic. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A top adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan is coming under fire for comments made to CNN in which he opined that the coronavirus was unleashed on the world after it escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Dr. Robert Redfield, who joined the Hogan administration earlier this month as an unpaid senior adviser on the pandemic, made the comments in an interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta that was posted on CNN today. The comments drew swift criticism from several state senators who worried Redfield’s statement could further inflame anti-Asian American sentiment.

State Senate President Bill Ferguson called on Hogan to disassociate himself from the comments and have Redfield retract them or leave his advisory position.

Sen. Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, said Redfield’s words spread “racism, hate and scapegoating” and “puts a big bulls-eye on the backs” of Asian Americans.

“We’re really appalled,” said Lee. “We’re shocked. We’re really saddened that Dr. Redfield would make this statement especially after the shooting and the brutal murder of eight people in Atlanta, six being women of Asian descent and the surge, the surge of violent hate crimes against Asian American all over the country and even in our wonderful state of Maryland. I have to say words really do matter and they are really dangerous when they manifest themselves or they provoke violent actions against an entire ethnic group.”

Redfield, speaking on CNN, said he believed the pandemic began as early as September 2019 and emphasized to Gupta that his belief was his own opinion.

“That’s my view,” said Redfield. “I’m allowed to have opinions now. I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, you know, escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out. it’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect a laboratory worker.”

Redfield, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Donald Trump, told Gupta that he was not “implying any intentionality. It’s my opinion. I am a virologist. I’ve spent my life in virology. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in that time that virus came to a human and became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human to human transmission.”

The former head of the CDC went on to explain that he believed it would be harder for the virus to jump species from an animal to human so quickly without some form of human intervention.

Gupta said Redfield’s opinion “was informed” but noted that other scientists including the World Health Organization believe the lab theory is “extremely unlikely.”

Nonetheless, some health experts, government officials and public policy experts have expressed skepticism of China’s account of how the virus originated. They note that the country had stifled initial alarms, suppressed criticism of its policies and declined to cooperate at times with international health organizations.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Redfield’s comments have no bearing on his work for Hogan.

“As Dr. Redfield said, this is his opinion as a professional,” said Ricci. “Where or when the pandemic started has no bearing on, and nothing to do with, how we’re dealing with it now.”

Hogan, whose wife, Yumi, is a Korean immigrant, has in the last week been very vocal about his concerns about racially motivated violence directed at the Asian-American community and how those threats have affected his wife and adult daughters.

But for Lee and other Asian-American public officials, including Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore and a physician, the words come at a time of heightened violence against people of Asian descent in the United States and evoke memories of the ethnic slurs used by Trump to describe COVID-19.

The rise in bias, discrimination and hate aimed at Asian Americans over the past year can be directly attributable to the racially politicized rhetoric that we’ve heard over the past year,” said Lam. “That’s why I am disturbed that a senior adviser to the governor is now trafficking in the same innuendo, rhetoric and inflammatory language and allegations without any evidence in attributing the coronavirus to a man-made origin.”

Asked what he found in Redfield’s comments that was racist, Lam said: “I don’t know what his motivations are — maybe they’re not to impugn certain countries or impugn certain people, but in this environment, where we’ve already seen apparent biases applied to Asian Americans, to attribute the origins of this virus to a man-made laboratory in China, I think further fans the flames of divisive rhetoric that we just don’t need at this time.”

Both Lam and Ferguson, the leader of the Senate, called on Redfield to retract his statement or leave his position advising the Hogan administration.

Ferguson told reporters Friday that the addition of Redfield gave him “some level of hope that there would be thoughtful discussion and input in advisory roles in the vaccination program moving forward.

“A comment like this on national news is just not OK, and I am hopeful that the governor will ask Dr. Redfield to either retract or walk back his statement or clarify his statement in some way, and if not I hope the governor does ask him to step away, because the governor has demonstrated how inappropriate he thinks these sort of race-based insinuations and attacks have been,” said Ferguson.

Redfield is no stranger to controversy.

During his time with the CDC under Trump, Redfield was seen as having largely allowed the agency to become subject to the former president’s whims and refusing to contradict misinformation put out by Trump during the pandemic.

In 2002, he was rejected for a similar post by former President George W. Bush for his work on policies in the 1980s that stigmatized soldiers infected with HIV and for making faith-based anti-gay statements.

Prior to his work at the CDC, Redfield conducted research on HIV infections and co-founded the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He also served as a professor of medicine and microbiology and chief of infectious diseases at the school.

Hogan, in a March 2 news conference where he introduced Redfield, rejected concerns that his new top adviser allowed the reputation of the CDC to become tarnished by politics.



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