- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2020

President Trump on Friday confirmed that the U.S. government and intelligence agencies are investigating if the coronavirus outbreak began from poor security at a Wuhan laboratory.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that U.S. intelligence agencies were looking at whether a Wuhan laboratory may have been the source of the deadly outbreak of a disease similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome that emanated from China in 2003.

Gen. Milley said the two theories about the origin of the virus, which scientists say is important to know for finding therapies and vaccines, are that it was a natural jump from bats to an animal at an exotic food market in Wuhan and then spread to humans.

“We’re looking at it,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a Rose Garden briefing on his coronavirus task force of reports the virus may have escaped from the Chinese research site in Wuhan. “A lot of people are looking at it.”

Mr. Trump added that the lab origin story “seems to make sense.”

“They talk about a certain kind of bat, but that bat wasn’t in that area,” the president said. “. But that bat wasn’t sold at that wet zone,” he said referring to the wild animal market in Wuhan. “It wasn’t sold there. That bat was 40 miles away. A lot of strange things are happening.”

China has consistently denied that the deadly virus behind the global pandemic was created in one of its labs.

Earlier Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. government has continued to press China to allow virus investigators to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology that houses China’s only very high-security laboratory capable of handling deadly pathogens.

China has conducted extensive research into bat coronaviruses and according to Chinese scientific studies has isolated hundreds of new animal viruses, including coronaviruses from bats.The virus behind the current deadly pandemic is known as SARS-CoV-2 for SARS coronavirus-2.

China has had laboratory virus escapes in the past of the first SARS virus according to virus experts.

A group of U.S. virus experts stated in an article in Nature Medicine in March that China in the past conducted research on coronaviruses at less secure laboratories. “We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2,” they stated.

Dr. Anthony Fauchi, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked at the briefing if the virus was “man-made” and may have originated in a laboratory.

He said a study by a group of evolutionary virologists examined the genome sequences of the coronavirus and other bat viruses that evolved.

“And the mutations that took to get where it is now is totally consistent with a jump from a species to an animal to a human,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo said told Fox Business News Friday that the Chinese government and the World Health Organization failed to provide information about the virus in a timely manner “and the result of that is that we now have this global pandemic.

Earlier this week, he identified the Wuhan Institute of Virology as potentially having information about the spread of the new pneumonia-like disease.

“We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get in to that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began,” he said on Fox Business Network. “It’s not political. This is about science and epidemiology. We need to understand what has taken place so that we can reduce [the] risk to Americans in the days and weeks and months ahead and get the global economy back on track.”

Mr. Pompeo was asked about news reports that warnings were sent by U.S. diplomats in China two years ago detailing lax security at research laboratories in Wuhan.

“Those are the kind of projects we’ve been engaged in, trying to help make sure that the technical know-how was available in those labs,” he said.

“And clearly, we need to investigate whether that took place here, whether they had the capability to handle the kinds of viruses that were being studied or worked on in that laboratory. We don’t know those answers. The Chinese Communist Party needs to open up and let us get those answers.”

China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday again dismissed reports that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, saying WHO officials have “repeatedly stated that there is no evidence showing the virus was made in a lab.”

“Now [U.S. officials] are again hyping up the issue of origins, insinuating that the virus had something to do with the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Mr. Zhao said. “It’s not difficult to see through their tricks which intend to muddy the waters, deflect attention and shift the blame to others.”

But other foreign leaders, including British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and French President

Emmanuel Macron are echoing U.S. complaints about China’s actions. Mr. Macron on Thursday ridiculed claims China’s authoritarian government had done a better job dealing with the pandemic.

Let’s not be so naive as to say China has been much better at handling this,” the French leader told Britain’s Financial Times in an interview. “We don’t know — there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

Origin debates

Mr. Zhao came under fire from Mr. Pompeo and President Trump last month for citing false reports that the virus originated in the United States and was spread to Wuhan by U.S. Army soldiers.

Viruses do not need to be made or bioengineered in a laboratory to be deadly or used as bioweapons. For example, smallpox and hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola are among six potential biological weapons, according to Mark Kortepeter, a former Army biological warfare expert.

Mr. Zhao also asserted that many renowned medical experts have “debunked” the lab leak theory as not science-based. Critics of the lab release theory have asserted that the virus was not bioengineered and could not have escaped from a laboratory.

A group of renowned U.S. virologists, writing in the journal Nature Medicine, stated in March that Chinese laboratories in the past have allowed the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus or SARS to leak.

“We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2,” they wrote using the formal name for the virus.

The Chinese government spokesman said tracing the origins of the virus “is a serious matter of science” although China has not said whether it is conducting any scientific investigation into the origin of the virus.

Asked about the spokesman’s remarks, Mr. Pompeo said: “We don’t know the answer to the question about the precise origination point.”

“But we do know this: We know that the first sightings of this occurred within miles of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We know the history of the facility, the first BSL-4 lab where there’s high-end virus research being conducted, took place at that site. We know that the Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the WIVwas, in fact, the place where this came from.”

“And most importantly, we know they’ve not permitted the world’s scientists to go into that laboratory to evaluate what took place there, what’s happening there, what’s happening there even as we speak,” Mr. Pompeo said in a separate interview Friday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this week that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether the virus may have been released from a laboratory.

‘At this point, it’s inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural [origin], but we don’t know for certain,” Gen. Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.

Markets and labs

China initially said the outbreak in Wuhan was linked to tainted meat at wild animal market. However, a Chinese study said the first known person infected with the virus had no connection to the market.

The two main theories regarding the origin of the virus are that the bat-origin pathogen infected an animal at a wild animal market that then infected humans, or leaked out of a Wuhan laboratory where it was being studied. Scientists say details and samples of the virus from Wuhan are needed for developing therapies and vaccines, and for responding to future health crises.

China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology hosts the nation’s sole P-4 high-security laboratory capable of working with deadly pathogens. It is called the National Biosafety Laboratory.

Additionally, according to Chinese state-controlled media, the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has conducted extensive research on bat coronaviruses.

Both laboratories are less than 10 miles from the wild animal market in Wuhan that Chinese authorities initially said was the source of the outbreak.

However, the market was closed on Jan. 1 and completely scrubbed down in a bid to disinfect the market. The cleaning also eliminated any infected animals that may have transmitted the virus to humans.

China initially agreed to provide virus samples to the United States but later refused to do so.

China also refused to allow U.S. and international virus and disease experts to visit Wuhan for several weeks after the outbreak, which began in December, was formally acknowledged by the Chinese government in late January, further limiting the ability to determine the virus origin.

News reports this week quoting anonymous sources said the virus was traced by the U.S. government to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The reports said a worker at the Institute contracted the disease and then spread it throughout the city of 11 million people.

The Washington Times reported April 4 that a YouTube video from China disclosed that a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is suspected of being “Patient Zero” for the new disease outbreak.

The lab worker was accidentally infected and died, later spreading the highly-contagious disease during a funeral.

The outbreak began Dec. 1 in Wuhan and then spread throughout China and world, accelerating with mass travel by Chinese from Wuhan during the Lunar New Year in late January.

Mr. Pompeo defended U.S. efforts to press China regarding the origin of the virus.

“It is completely appropriate that the world ask the right questions,” he said.

The secretary that President Trump took action to cut off American funding for the World Health Organization over frustrations with the U.N. group’s failure to provide accurate information on the disease.

Once the information is obtained there will be a time to hold people and governments accountable.

“We’ll be able to attribute what happened, who did what, and we can move on from what is now an incident that has destroyed so much wealth not only here in the United States but all across the world,” Mr. Pompeo said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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