Intelligence agencies in the United States have concluded that the new coronavirus was “not man-made or genetically modified” but say they are still examining whether the origins of the pandemic can be traced to contact with infected animals or an accident at a Chinese lab.
The statement on Thursday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the clearinghouse for the web of US spy agencies, comes as President Donald Trump and his allies have touted the as-yet unproven theory that an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Chinese outbreak, was the source of the global pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide.
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“The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified,” said the statement. “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
The statement was issued on the same day The New York Times reported that officials in the Trump administration have been pressuring intelligence analysts to more definitively connect the virus with labs in China as part of a wider political effort to deflect blame for the outbreak in the run-up to the November presidential election.
Intelligence analysts expressed concern that the pressure would lead the agencies to distort their assessments for political reasons.
Relations between the intelligence community and Trump have been rocky since the start of his administration, after repeated claims by the president that a “deep-state” cabal attempted to derail his 2016 campaign and undermine his presidency.
Trump addressed the accidental-release theory earlier this month, saying, “More and more, we’re hearing the story.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers – that China hasn’t shared the answers – I think is very, very telling.”
Pompeo also pressed China to let outside experts into the lab “so that we can determine precisely where this virus began”.
Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. Even so, Pompeo and others have pointed fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the SARS virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people.
US officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but have yet to find any evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later.
The Chinese government said on Thursday that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are “unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cited the institute’s director, Yuan Zhiming, as saying the lab strictly implements biosecurity procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen.
“I would like to point out again that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and it should be studied by scientists and professionals,” Geng said.
Geng also criticised US politicians who have suggested China should be held accountable for the global pandemic, saying they should spend their time on “better controlling the epidemic situation at home”.
But a Chinese government spokesman, Zhao Lijian, demonstrated that China was not above sowing confusion in the face of the pandemic. He tweeted in March the falsehood that the virus might have come from the US Army.