U.S. intelligence agencies investigating the coronavirus behind the deadly global pandemic now believe it either mutated from animals to humans or escaped from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Thursday.
The statement marks the first time that ODNI, which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies, acknowledged that secret intelligence analysis is underway to determine how the virus outbreak began. It notes that various agencies have been providing support to policymakers on the COVID-19 virus, “which originated in China.”
President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all confirmed in recent days that spy agencies are probing the mounting questions surrounding the origins of the coronavirus, which has infected 3.2 million worldwide and killed at least 230,000 people.
China’s government initially said the virus spread from people infected from wild animal meat at a food market in Wuhan, but those claims shifted in the past three months.
“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 ODNI said.
U.S. intelligence analysts agree with a “wide scientific consensus” that the virus does not appear to have been man-made or genetically modified by Wuhan researchers who have carried out extensive research on bat coronaviruses like the one behind the pandemic.
The origin of the virus is important for scientific researchers seeking to understand the nature of the disease, how to treat it and how to respond to any future outbreaks.
Officials in other countries have raised questions about China’s handling of the outbreak, and Australia’s government has called for an international investigation into the origin of the virus.
Spokesmen for Beijing have said a scientific study is needed to determine the origin of the virus but have not indicated whether China is conducting such a probe.
Chinese authorities launched a campaign of disinformation asserting that the virus originated outside of China and that the U.S. Army may have brought the virus to China. The Trump administration sharply denies those charges.
The most recent example appeared in the official state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday. The report suggested that the virus originated at the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick facility, where biological weapons research is conducted.
The ODNI issued its statement after The New York Times reported Thursday that Trump administration officials were pressuring intelligence agencies to say the virus leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
Critics of the lab-origin theory have cited a scientific study published in the medical journal Nature Science in March that concluded the virus most likely mutated naturally from an animal to humans. The article is mentioned by The New York Times.
However, the Nature report also noted that China has been studying bat coronaviruses similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus at level two security laboratories and that an earlier deadly pathogen, the first severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, had leaked from laboratories.
“We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2,” the study authors concluded.
A Trump administration official said The New York Times report was inaccurate and that the article appeared to be an attempt to skew the ongoing U.S. intelligence analysis of the virus’ origin.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pompeo called on Chinese Communist Party authorities to grant access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-level security facility known to be studying deadly pathogens and a location that some U.S. officials believe is the origin of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s not just the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There are multiple labs inside of China that are handling these things. It’s important that those materials are being handled in a safe and secure way such that there isn’t an accidental release,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The Washington Times reported this week that a U.S. government draft report said there was strong circumstantial evidence that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory and that other theories, such as that the virus first emerged at a Wuhan wild animal market, were less credible.
Few news reports on the origin of the virus have said it was bioengineered.
An investigation conducted by The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television reported that a Chinese scientific paper published on Jan. 7 in Nature indicated that the new coronavirus was closely related to two SARS-like virus samples from bats obtained by the People’s Liberation Army and studied at a military research center in Nanjing, China.