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Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) on Friday called on Dr. Robert Redfield, a senior health adviser to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), to retract controversial comments about the origins of the novel coronavirus — or “step away” from his role with state.
Redfield, who served as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Trump, told CNN in an interview that he believed the virus responsible for the global pandemic “escaped” from a lab in China in September or October of 2019.
“I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, you know, escaped,” he said. “It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”
Because the first known outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in Wuhan, China, the region’s Institute of Virology has been a focus of intense speculation for more than a year.
In a more normal political climate, a former CDC director’s musings about the origins of a virus might not be culturally flammable. But given Trump’s frequent references to “the China virus” — remarks widely believed to have fueled a spike in attacks on people of Asian descent — Redfield’s comments were seen as insensitive and potentially dangerous.
(Like Trump, Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R-Md.), a physician, has referred to the “Wuhan virus” as recently as last April.)
The World Health Organization concluded more than a year ago that it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 escaped from a lab. Instead, experts believe the virus made its way from animals to humans.
Redfield, who recently became an unpaid adviser to Hogan, admitted his belief about the virus’ origins was an “opinion.” If he has insider knowledge from his time at the agency, he did not disclose it in the “teaser” clip that CNN aired on Friday.
“Other people don’t believe that,” he told the cable network’s medical correspondent, Dr. Sunjay Gupta. “That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”
Speaking to reporters following Friday’s session, Ferguson called Redfield’s comments “inappropriate, unacceptable and beyond unfortunate.”
“A comment like this, on national news, is just not OK,” he added. “And I am hopeful that the governor will ask Dr. Redfield to either retract or walk back that statement, or clarify that statement in some way. And if not, I hope that the governor does ask him to step away.”
Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), the immediate past chairwoman of the legislature’s Asian-American Pacific Islander Caucus, took to the floor at the conclusion of Friday’s Senate session.
She said she and others are “shocked and really saddened” by Redfield’s comments, which come just days after a shooting rampage in the Atlanta area that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent, and suggested that Asian-Americans could be targeted because of the remarks.
“We are really appalled,” she said. “Words really do matter. And they are really dangerous when they manifest themselves or they provoke violent actions against an entire ethnic group.”
“People in my community, they’re terrified,” Lee added. “They’re frightened, just to even take a walk outside.”
Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a Johns Hopkins physician, said there is “no evidence” that the coronavirus escaped from a lab.
He said a comment like Redfield’s “fuels misperceptions about the virus [and] inappropriately attributes the origins of this worldwide natural tragedy to a specific country and specific people.”
He called it “deeply disturbing” that someone with Redfield’s views is advising the governor. And he said the former CDC chief should retract his comments or end his relationship with Hogan.
Hogan has repeatedly denounced violence against Asian-Americans.
He has given several national interviews on the topic, and recently toured Asian-American-owned businesses in Howard County with his wife, first lady Yumi Hogan, who was born in South Korea, and County Executive Calvin Ball (D).
On Friday, Hogan and 24 other governors — Republicans and Democrats — released a joint statement that condemned attacks based on ethnicity.
“As governors, we take care in protecting the people of our states,” they wrote. “The tragic loss of loved ones in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six Asian Americans, is part of a long and painful litany of acts of hate against Asian Americans across the country.”
“Today, and everyday, we stand in solidarity, in support, and in shared resolve with the Asian American community. Hate will not divide our states and our communities, and we condemn all expressions of racism, xenophobia, scapegoating, and anti-Asian sentiment.”
On Friday, the governor, his wife and Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) participated in an online discussion, hosted by U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), about prejudice against Asian-Americans.
During the “‘Stop AAPI Hate’ Virtual Roundtable,” the Hogans and Moon described hate-motivated incidents aimed at their families, relatives, friends and neighbors.
“I’m sickened by the racism that my wife and daughters and their friends have had to contend with throughout their lives, but especially during this pandemic,” the governor said.
The first lady said, “so many Asian-Americans are living in fear.”
Redfield is the co-founder of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Baltimore.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said his remarks about the virus follow “the terrible judgment that he demonstrated” as head of the CDC.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, tried to diffuse the controversy over Redfield’s remarks, and said that Redfield did not cast blame for the origin of the virus during the CNN interview. “He expressly says he’s not implying intentionality,” Ricci said.
Highly-charged rhetoric in the General Assembly
Some lawmakers believe Anti-Asian sentiment has reared its head in the General Assembly this session, too.
Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery), who grew up in China, penned an op-ed for Maryland Matters earlier this month calling out Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) for remarks he made on the House floor when delegates debated one of her bills.
But there’s another instance of bizarre remarks about Asian women, in particular, that hasn’t received as much public attention.
During a debate on the TRUST Act immigrants’ rights bill earlier this week, Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) compared the shooting deaths of Asian women to the rights afforded to people in America.
In addressing how he believes that the U.S. “is the most fair and open, law-abiding country that the world has ever known” during a debate on the TRUST Act Tuesday, Cassilly brought up the six Asian women slain during a shooting spree in Atlanta last week.
“We took that as a national tragedy,” he said. “But let’s face it, every Asian woman, pretty much, in America has more rights — more freedoms — than a billion, or half a billion whatever Asian women do in China.”
Lee sits directly next to Cassilly in the committee room. She said his comment wasn’t appropriate.
“I don’t know what he was talking about,” Lee, a third-generation Chinese-American, told Maryland Matters in an interview. “I don’t know where that came from, but I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
“Let’s just say I didn’t appreciate that comment because I don’t know what he was talking about, first of all, and I don’t know it was directed at me.”
Ferguson said he only became privy to Cassilly’s comment Friday but agreed that it’s “not acceptable.” He said he’s “disappointed” and plans to have a conversation with Cassilly.
“When we started session this year, it was soon after what we saw happen in Washington, D.C., and one of the most important messages I tried to convey after what we saw on Jan. 6 … is that our words do matter,” he said. “And when elected officials speak, those words can have reverberations and send messages and echoes to create a sentiment that can be used for good or ill.”
“It’s not what I expect of a senator.”
Cassilly could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.