- The US is exploring the possibility that the novel coronavirus was accidentally released from a Chinese lab, intelligence sources told Yahoo News, Fox News, and CNN.
- President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made statements recently confirming that the government was investigating this angle.
- China has denied the theory. Early in the crisis it pegged the virus – thought to come from bats – to a wet market in Wuhan.
- But there are holes in that story, including that bats weren’t sold at the market and that the first known patient had no connection to the market.
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The COVID-19 outbreak started in the city of Wuhan, home to some of China’s top research laboratories. One of them – the Wuhan Institute of Virology – has done research on coronaviruses that originate in bats, as is thought to be the case with the novel virus.
The Chinese government denied that the lab was to blame early on, instead saying the outbreak started at a wet market in the city. But there were holes in that theory. The market didn’t sell bats, and the first patient – as well as multiple other early cases – didn’t have any connection to the market, as Yahoo News pointed out.
The alternative theory is not that the virus was created in a lab but rather that it was naturally occurring and was being studied in one. The sources who spoke out say the government is exploring the idea that a Wuhan lab accidentally released the virus into the public, perhaps through a worker who unknowingly became infected.
The Yahoo News reporter Jenna McLaughlin spoke with nine current and former intelligence and national security officials familiar with the investigations for her report.
She wrote that one of the things that raised suspicions in the US intelligence community was the fact that China was so quick to peg the virus’ source as the wet market. “I find it very funny that China very quickly blamed the market,” a retired intelligence official told Yahoo News.
Sources told Fox News that Chinese officials blamed the wet market to deflect attention from the laboratory and “100%” suppressed and changed data. “Samples were destroyed, contaminated areas scrubbed, some early reports erased, and academic articles stifled,” the report said.
The sources who spoke with CNN confirmed the initial reporting from Yahoo News and Fox News that the intelligence community was looking into the lab theory but said it was only one of multiple possibilities under consideration and was far from confirmed.
A previous story in The Washington Post appears to lend credibility to the lab theory. This week, The Post obtained US diplomatic cables from 2018 saying that lack of safety protocols at the Wuhan Institute of Virology could prompt an outbreak. Two diplomats who made multiple visits to the lab said they were concerned that sloppy safety standards for handling contagious viruses “represented a risk for a new SARS-like pandemic.” (Samples of SARS were twice leaked accidentally from Chinese labs, according to Genome Biology, an academic journal.)
In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US has grown to eclipse those of China. With that has come criticism for President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Trump has responded by pinning the blame on China, continually calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and accusing the Chinese government of lying about the scope of the outbreak there.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have talked publicly about the lab theory in recent days.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, the president was asked about the recent reports and he said the US was “doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.” He didn’t, however, discuss what he had been told in briefings about the possibility of the virus coming from a lab.
Following the press briefing, Pompeo went into more detail about the theory on Fox News.
“What we do know is we know that this virus originated in Wuhan, China,” Pompeo said. “We know there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was. There is still lots to learn. The United States government is working diligently to figure it out.”