The Pentagon’s top general has said that US intelligence has looked into the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak could have started in a Chinese laboratory, but that the “weight of evidence” so far pointed towards “natural” origins.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, was speaking on the day of a Washington Post report about state department cables in 2018 in which US diplomats raised safety concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) which was conducting studies of coronavirus from bats.
“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” a cable dated 19 January 2018 said, according to the Post.
The diplomats urged further US support for the laboratory to address the concerns, but no support was given, at a time when the Trump administration was cutting back on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outreach abroad.
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Beijing’s official version of the start outbreak was the Covid-19 virus (Sars-CoV-2) was transmitted to humans from animals at Wuhan’s wild animal markets, though some Chinese officials have circulated conspiracy theories suggesting it was engineered in a US bioweapons laboratory.
The cables reported by the Washington Post have emerged at a time when the administration is seeking to focus blame for the pandemic on China and the World Health Organization. The Republican senator Tom Cotton has raised the possibility that the pandemic was a deliberate Chinese bioweapon attack, though he has argued natural transmission from animals to humans, or a lab accident, were more likely scenarios.
“There’s a lot of rumour and speculation in a wide variety of media, blog sites, etc,” Milley told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday. “It should be no surprise to you that we’ve taken a keen interest in that, and we’ve had a lot of intelligence look at that. 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.”
Most scientists say that this coronavirus probably originated in bats but found its way to humans through an intermediary animal.
There is no conclusive evidence that this happened at Wuhan’s notorious “wet” markets where wild animals were sold for meat. Analysis of the first 41 Covid-19 patients in medical journal the Lancet found that 27 of them had direct exposure to the Wuhan market. But the same analysis found that the first known case did not.