President Donald Trump said Friday that U.S. intelligence officials are investigating whether the novel coronavirus began spreading after an accident at a Chinese high-security biomedical laboratory in Wuhan.
Trump offered no evidence. The investigation is ongoing and aides stressed there have been no conclusions.
"We’re looking at it," Trump told reporters during a COVID-19 briefing at the White House. "A lot of people are looking at it – it seems to make sense."
Since January, theories about a possible leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have circulated largely among right-wing bloggers, some conservative media pundits and pro-Trump hawks on China.
One scenario in circulation claims the virus was man-made and linked to a Chinese biowarfare program, but it has been widely dismissed by critics and experts as a conspiracy theory. Another scenario maintains that the virus, kept in the lab in a natural state, accidentally escaped from the facility due to poor security protocols.
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Chinese officials and scientists have repeatedly dismissed the allegations but China's lack of transparency over its COVID-19 outbreak have helped to give oxygen to the theories.
"Until the Chinese government convinces me otherwise I'll continue to argue that the most likely explanation is that this virus was one of thousands of viruses that were being kept in bio labs in Wuhan and that a lab worker got infected," said Steven Mosher, a China expert and president of Population Research Institute, a Virginia-based pro-life advocate whose blog posts and opinion columns in the New York Post and elsewhere were among the first to float uncorroborated theories about an accidental leak.
"It's also possible an infected animal was sold from the lab – a horseshoe bat, probably – from the nearby wet market for a very good price. It was then butchered on the spot, bloody and dripping, and wound up on someone's dinner table and the virus infected somebody in that process," Mosher said, describing a purely theoretical scenario.
Mosher conceded he can't prove anything and that his ideas are based on conjectural factors such as Wuhan being a center for coronavirus research in bats, China's reported dangerous lab safety record and Beijing's obfuscation on the pandemic.
Beijing has clouded and revised information about its infections and deaths and detained whistleblowing medical workers. An Associated Press investigation found China didn't inform the public about the virus for nearly a week, enabling it to spread undetected at a vital moment. China's foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao has also pushed a false counter-narrative that coronavirus originated with the U.S. military.
In late January, Dany Shalom, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, said in a Washington Times newspaper article that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is linked to a Chinese covert bio-weapons program. He did not provide any evidence.
Shalom did not want to comment further on his claims when contacted by USA TODAY.
On March 25, the Washington Times appended an "editor's note" to its story in which Shalom appears saying scientists outside of China concluded that COVID-19 "does not show signs of having been manufactured or purposefully manipulated in a lab."
China denies that coronavirus was either engineered in a secret dual-civilian-military use lab in Wuhan or that it was a natural bat coronavirus that accidentally leaked out.
"I'd like to remind you that the (World Health Organization) has repeatedly stated that there is no evidence showing the virus was made in a lab," China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Friday. "Many renowned medical specialists in the world have also debunked the 'lab leakage'’ theory as not science-based at all."
The WHO itself has come under scrutiny over its handling of the outbreak.
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But the exact origins of the virus remain murky.
In a March 11 interview with Scientific American, Shi Zhengli, one of China's leading experts on bat coronaviruses and deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said that when her team sequenced the genome of the new coronavirus in Wuhan it did not match any of the bat coronaviruses her laboratory had previously collected and studied.
A research paper by a group of Chinese scientists published in January by The Lancet, a well-respected British medical journal, revealed the first COVID-19 patient, identified on Dec. 1, had no apparent connection to Wuhan's wet market. Nor did about a third of the initial large cluster of confirmed cases, a revelation that's raised eyebrows.
Further muddying the picture, Nobel Prize laureate Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of HIV, released a statement Friday claiming that according to his analysis COVID-19 was the result of an attempt to manufacture an AIDS virus that escaped a lab. Montagnier's analysis has not been peer-reviewed. In recent years the Frenchman has been involved with controversial research that's been shunned by mainstream scientists.
Anthony Fauci, the U.S.'s top infectious disease expert, poured cold water on the theory that COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese lab.
"A group of highly-qualified evolutionary virologists looked at the sequences in bats as they evolve. The mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now are totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human," he said Friday in the White House press briefing in response to a reporter's question on the theory.
Two administration officials, speaking to USA TODAY on condition of anonymity because the investigation is classified and sensitive, said they have always questioned China's account of how the virus originated, and take seriously suggestions that it may have resulted from a lab accident that the Chinese are covering up – but they stressed that the intelligence community investigation is ongoing and no conclusions have been reached.
"There's a high level of suspicion," one official said.
The officials also said that the investigation is not a primary focus right now for Trump and his top aides; their concern is to stop the spread of the virus in the U.S., re-open the economy and government, and try to return to some semblance of normalcy.
There will be plenty of time to review China's actions down the line, the two officials said.
Diplomacy is one of the reasons the probe requires delicate handling, they said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who is a staunch China hawk, has floated claims about a "cover up" by Beijing.
"The Chinese Communist Party has continued to lie about this from the very beginning, as if they have something to cover up," Cotton said in an interview on the Fox & Friends television program on Friday morning. If that's the case, it really is the biggest, the costliest, the most deadly cover up in the history of mankind," he said.
Former White House advisor Steve Bannon, another strident China critic, has repeatedly validated unproven claims and theories about the covert biological weapons program origins of coronavirus in "War Room: Pandemic," his daily radio broadcast.
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U.S. military planners have been non-committal about the coronavirus investigation.
"There's a lot of rumor and speculation in a wide variety of media, the blog sites, etc. It should be no surprise to you that we've taken a keen interest in that and we've had a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that," Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Tuesday briefing at the Pentagon.
"And I would just say, at this point, it's inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But we don't know for certain," said.
Asked in the coronavirus briefing Friday about the theories about the Chinese lab in Wuhan, Trump also appeared to take a more circumspect stance.
"A lot of strange things are happening," he said. "We’re going to find out."
Contributing: David Heath