President Trump has speculated that the virus accidentally — or even intentionally — leaked out of the Wuhan lab, and said as much during a Fox News town hall, “It’s a terrible thing that happened. Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said he had seen “enormous evidence” of this. However, neither Trump nor Pompeo have produced that evidence.
The Chinese government has vehemently those allegations, and slammed both Trump and Pompeo in an editorial published in the state-owned Global Times newspaper:
Since Pompeo said his claims are supported by “enormous evidence,” then he should present this so-called evidence to the world, and especially to the American public who he continually tries to fool. The truth is that Pompeo does not have any evidence, and during Sunday’s interview, he was bluffing.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also said the allegations were part of a smear campaign against China, intended to help Trump in the 2020 election.
Here’s What Intelligence Officials Say
The office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement Apr. 30 addressing the nature of coronavirus’s origins:
The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade 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.
NBC reported that intelligence analysts received a document showing that a portion of the Wuhan Institute had no cell phone activity, leading the document’s author to believe “there may have been a ‘hazardous event’ sometime between Oct. 6 and Oct. 11.”
However, according to NBC News’ own London-based analysts, “It offers no direct evidence of a shutdown or any proof for the theory that the virus emerged accidentally from the lab.”
And U.S. intelligence officials told NBC that the document appeared to have inconsistencies and made assertions that were proven to be untrue. NBC News reported that “…after examining overhead imagery and their own data, the spy agencies were unable to confirm any shutdown and deemed the reports ‘inconclusive.'”
According to what NBC News reported, U.S. intelligence officials have been skeptical of what little information they have been presented and told NBC News, “There is no “smoking gun” evidence pointing them in that direction,” — “that direction” being the Wuhan lab — “and there may never be.”
The New York Times reported that even intelligence officials who believe the lab is the source of the leak have only seen circumstantial evidence, most of which is public.
Where did the lab theory come from?
There are two labs in Wuhan: the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a biosecurity of level 2, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology Lab, which has a higher level 4 of biosecurity.
As early as January 26, the Washington Times wrote an article (which has since been updated) suggesting the “deadly animal-borne coronavirus” originated in a Chinese lab.
Then, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas mentioned that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was near the first confirmed location of an outbreak, the Huanan Market, in an interview with Fox News, before he began exploring the theory that it was either intentionally or accidentally leaked from a lab.
After the U.S. intelligence community’s statement, however, the most persistent lab-related theory has been that of an accidental leak: that scientists in Wuhan who were performing tests on diseased bats to document the various strains of coronavirus and during that process, an employee was somehow infected.
The Washington Post reported that in 2018, U.S. science diplomats reviewed China’s ability to safely conduct such viral research and they sent two alarmed cables back to Washington:
The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
However, following the outbreak, renowned Wuhan Institute researcher Shi Zhengli said she checked the lab to see if the current genome of coronavirus was present in any of the samples they had been studying before the outbreak, according to Live Science.
Scientific American also noted that she checked to ensure viral material hadn’t been mishandled and swore that there was no link to the lab.
China’s lack of transparency, as told by scientists like Associated Director Gerald Keusch of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, was also an issue. “The timeline is fuzzy and I don’t think we have real data to say when these things began, in large part because the data are being held back from inspection,” he told Live Science.
The Washington Post has also reported that the Chinese government has not yet provided samples of the earliest coronavirus cases and the disappearance of journalists and doctors involved in the outbreak’s earliest stages has raised suspicions.
However, most scientists, such as the ten interviewed by NPR, do not believe the disease was leaked from a lab.
What Do Scientist Say Is the Most Likely Scenario?
Coronaviruses are generally common in all types of animals and typically only cause a cold in humans. However, most scientists believe this particular coronavirus originated in bats before it jumped species and eventually adapted to infect humans.
“And among scientists and especially virologists, there is largely agreement that the chances that a lab accident sparked the outbreak are slim, while the probability that the new virus made the leap from an animal to a human in a nonlab setting in southern China is much higher,” the New York Times reported.
On March 17, an article titled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” was published in Nature Medicine. The article unequivocally concluded that the virus was naturally-occurring and likely came from bats before it potentially jumped to pangolins and eventually adapted to infect humans. The article also went on to state that a coronavirus found in the Rhinolopus affinis bat was roughly 96% identical to the human coronavirus.
Given the similarity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses, it is likely that bats serve as reservoir hosts for its progenitor … Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) illegally imported into Guangdong province contain coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2. Although the RaTG13 bat virus remains the closest to SARS-CoV-2 across the genome, some pangolin coronaviruses exhibit strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the RBD, including all six key RBD residues.
Most scientists believe that the coronavirus jumped from an animal to a human at the Huanan seafood market in the Hubei Province of Wuhan, China.
Dr. Michelle Barker, an immunologist who studied viruses in bats, noted that the market is definitely related to the infection, but also explained that most researchers are unwilling to be definite about declaring the market as the location where the disease jumped species since they weren’t given access to the scene.
“The market was cleaned up quite quickly. We can only speculate,” she told The Guardian.
However, wet markets have had a controversial history, particularly linked to other severe acute respiratory syndromes and the H5N1 bird-influenza virus released in Hong Kong. A “wet market” is a place where seafood is sold out of containers full of water and other exotic animals are sold — sometimes live — including poultry, snakes and badgers.
Professor Stephen Turner of Melbourne’s Monash University said that it is unclear what animal likely infected the human at the market, in part because coronavirus has shown itself to be adaptable enough to infect cats, dogs and even a tiger.
According to an article published in The Lancet, the market was shut down on January 1 after an epidemiological alert was sent out on December 31, 2019; by then, 41 people had tested positive.
On January 13, the first case was reported outside of China in Thailand and two days later, the first infected person from Wuhan arrived in the U.S.