WASHINGTON – American intelligence officials agree with “the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified,” President Donald Trump’s top intelligence office said Thursday.
But U.S. intelligence agencies will continue to examine whether the virus originated in animals and then jumped to humans – or if it was accidentally released by a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged.
The intelligence community “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 office of the national intelligence director, led by Richard Grenell, said in a statement.
Trump and his allies have called for an investigation into the origins of the virus in an escalating campaign to pin blame for the pandemic on China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested, without citing evidence, that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a theory that many scientists have disputed.
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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 09, 2020. US President Donald Trump announced on April 14, 2020, a suspension of US funding to the World Health Organization because he said it had covered up the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China before it spread around the world. Trump told a press conference he was instructing his administration to halt funding while “a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
“We don’t know precisely where this virus originated from,” Pompeo said Wednesday during a State Department press briefing. He complained that the Chinese government had not allowed U.S. scientists to access the lab, a high-security biomedical facility in Wuhan. Pompeo said it’s unclear if the lab has adequate safety precautions.
In a March 17 paper published by Nature Medicine, five scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia, said the scientific evidence shows the virus was not purposefully manipulated and that it most likely came from an animal.
“We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” they wrote, although they also said “it is currently impossible to prove or disprove” other theories.
Critics say the White House is trying to deflect attention away Trump’s own missteps in responding to the pandemic and point the finger at at China as he faces a tough re-election campaign.
“This is all about manipulating intelligence for political ends,” Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who worked in the Obama administration, wrote in a tweet Thursday. “Whether the virus originated in a market or accidentally escaped a lab would have had no bearing on the warnings Trump received – and ignored – nor on the preparatory steps he chose not to take.”
Theories about a possible leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have circulated since January, largely among right-wing bloggers, some conservative media pundits and pro-Trump China hawks.
The theory that it came from the Wuhan lab is based on circumstantial evidence, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s history of studying coronaviruses in bats, the lab’s proximity to where some of the infections were first diagnosed and China’s lax safety record in its labs.
The World Health Organization concluded earlier this month that the virus was not manipulated or produced in a laboratory and said it probably came from an animal, as Chinese officials have asserted.
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“It is probable, likely, that the virus is of animal origin,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said on April 22.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Trump intelligence chief says COVID-19 not man-made