US intelligence agencies are debunking a conspiracy theory, saying they have concluded that coronavirus was “not man-made or genetically modified”.
But they say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.
The statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence comes as President Donald Trump touted the as-yet-unproven theory that an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Chinese outbreak, was the source of the global pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide.
In recent days, the Trump administration has sharpened its rhetoric against China, accusing the geopolitical foe and vital trading partner of failing to act swiftly enough to sound the alarm about the outbreak or to stop the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19.
Our mission at the @StateDept is to protect Americans from threats around the world. As we seek information about the origins of #COVID19, we call on #China to be transparent and cooperative. When countries engage in disinformation it creates risk. We need reliable partners. pic.twitter.com/1WB0oEF7XW— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) April 30, 2020
US officials have said the Chinese government should “pay a price” for its handling of the pandemic.
The new statement says: “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.
“The IC 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.”
President Trump on Thursday again blamed China.
“We just got hit by a vicious virus that should never have been allowed to escape China,” he said during an Oval Office meeting with New Jersey Gov Phil Murphy.
Earlier this month, President Trump addressed the lab theory saying: “More and more, we’re hearing the story.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added at the time: “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers — that China hasn’t shared the answers — I think is very, very telling.”
Mr Pompeo also pressed China to let outside experts into the lab “so that we can determine precisely where this virus began”.
Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. Even so, Mr Pompeo and others have pointed fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
It has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the Sars virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people.
“We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was,” Mr Pompeo said two weeks ago.
The institute has an address eight miles from the market that is considered a possible source.
US officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but they have yet to find any evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later.
The Chinese government said on Thursday that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are “unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cited the institute’s director, Yuan Zhiming, as saying the lab strictly implements bio-security procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen.
“I would like to point out again that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and it should be studied by scientists and professionals,” Mr Geng said.
Scientists studying the virus for months have made clear they believe it was not man-made, but are still working to determine a point at which it may have jumped from animals to humans.