U.S. still hasn't ruled out lab accident origin for Covid because China hasn't been transparent
Category: News & PoliticsVia: s • 3 weeks ago • 31 comments
WASHINGTON — Despite a finding by the World Health Organization that the Covid-19 outbreak in China most likely first infected humans through an animal host, the United States is still not ruling out the possibility of a laboratory accident, as officials continue to sort through intelligence about the Chinese government’s initial handling of the outbreak, American and Western officials told NBC News.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told NBC News the agency is standing by a public statement it issued in April, which said that that American intelligence agencies "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."
U.S. officials have not made public any evidence pointing to a lab accident, and most scientists who have studied the matter said that such a scenario is unlikely. But Biden administration officials have faulted China in recent days for what they have termed a lack of transparency around the origins of the virus. And they have criticized how the WHO last week presented the initial findings of a visit to Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emerged.
WHO investigators, after visiting three labs in Wuhan, said last week they found no signs that a lab accident could have caused the outbreak. One WHO researcher told reporters at a news conference the organization was halting any further inquiry into that theory.
But the director general of the WHO appeared to walk back that definitive statement a few days later, saying that "all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study."
A Western intelligence official who has seen classified material told NBC News the U.S. has substantial intelligence that has not been made public about actions the Chinese government took — related to the Wuhan lab and other issues — that were designed to obscure the origins of Covid-19 and conceal its early impact. A former U.S. official who has also seen the intelligence agreed that it was significant, if inconclusive.
Both sources said the material, which they did not detail, did not add up to evidence that a lab accident occurred. But they said it raised enough circumstantial questions that analysts have been unable to rule out the lab scenario. U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment.
The intelligence, which includes documents, paints a picture of a Chinese government initially trying to hide the burgeoning pandemic from the outside world.
There is no doubt that, especially when Covid-19 first hit but even today, China is falling far short of the mark when it comes to providing the information necessary to the international community," Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told NBC's Andrea Mitchell this month. "All of the — that lack of transparency, that lack of being forthcoming, is a profound problem and it's one that continues."
The so-called lab theory refers to a hypothesis that the Covid outbreak emerged in Wuhan as a result of an accidental release from one of the labs working with coronaviruses in that city — perhaps from an improper disposal of lab waste or an employee who got infected at work and then infected others.
U.S. intelligence agencies and scientists say they have ruled out that Covid-19 was human-made or intentionally released. The lab theory hypothesizes an accidental release of a virus found in nature by researchers and brought in for study.
Scientists say that scenario is unlikely on its face, because animal-to-human transmission of viruses are common, while lab accidents are relatively rare. The key scientists studying viruses in Wuhan say they were not studying the Covid-19 virus, which had not been previously documented in nature before the outbreak.
Intelligence officials counter that one key lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, removed from public view a database of 22,000 virus samples for security reasons, and has not allowed a detailed look at the lab's notes or other records.
They say it's suspicious that the virus outbreak arose in Wuhan, a hub of virus research in China, while the bats that commonly carry coronaviruses are typically found in caves a thousand miles from that city.
They note that scientists also have not found a host animal that could have transferred the virus to humans, after a year of looking.
The Washington Post, in an editorial last week, called the lab leak theory "plausible," and said it "must be investigated."
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, "should provide all records regarding bat samples, viruses and sequences, with verified information provenance, and eventually, it should be disclosed to all," the editorial said. "The origin of the pandemic is of interest to every person on the globe."
WHO researchers acknowledged last week that the "wet" or live-animal market in Wuhan, which was originally thought to be a likely source of the outbreak, may not be the whole story, since early cases have been identified in people who had no connection to the market.