WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday he has seen evidence suggesting the novel coronavirus originated in a virology lab in Wuhan, China.
Trump did not provide any evidence to support that assertion, and he seemed to hedge a bit by saying there were many “theories” about the origin of the virus. He has repeatedly called for an investigation into the origin of the virus, part of what critics say is an effort to shift blame to China amid growing criticism of Trump’s missteps in response to the crisis.
The president’s comment on Thursday came just hours after his director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, issued a statement on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community stating there was broad agreement the virus was not man-made or genetically modified.
But that statement left open the question of whether the virus was accidentally released by a laboratory in China, where the virus first emerged before spreading across the globe, or whether it came from animals and then jumped to humans, as the Chinese government has stated.
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 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, led by Richard Grenell, said in a statement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested, without citing evidence, that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a theory that many scientists have disputed.
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, April 6, 2020, in Washington.
Trump seemed to lend credence to that theory on Thursday, even though the national intelligence director’s statement said that question was unresolved.
Asked if he had seen “anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus,” Trump responded: “Yes I have. Yes I have.”
The president said he could not divulge what gave him that high degree of confidence. And he seemed to hedge on his assertion later, saying “there’s a lot of theories” about the origin of the virus. “We’re going to see where it is, we’re going to see where it comes from,” Trump said.
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The New York Times reported Thursday morning that Trump administration officials were pushing US intelligence agencies to search for evidence supporting the theory it escaped the lab in Wuhan. Pompeo has been one of the administration’s most public China critics amid the pandemic, and he has repeatedly raised questions about the security at Chinese labs that study potentially dangerous viruses.
“We don’t know precisely where this virus originated from,” Pompeo said Wednesday during a State Department press briefing. He complained that the Chinese government had not allowed U.S. scientists to access the Wuhan virology lab, a high-security biomedical facility. Pompeo said it’s unclear if the lab has adequate safety precautions.
In a March 17 paper published by Nature Medicine, five scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia, said the scientific evidence shows the virus was not purposefully manipulated and that it most likely came from an animal.
“We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” they wrote, although they also said “it is currently impossible to prove or disprove” other theories.
Critics say the White House is trying to deflect attention from Trump’s own missteps in responding to the pandemic and point the finger at at China as he faces a tough reelection campaign.
“This is all about manipulating intelligence for political ends,” Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who worked in the Obama administration, wrote in a tweet Thursday. “Whether the virus originated in a market or accidentally escaped a lab would have had no bearing on the warnings Trump received – and ignored – nor on the preparatory steps he chose not to take.”
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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a daily press briefing in Geneva.
Theories about a possible leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have circulated since January, largely among right-wing bloggers, some conservative media pundits and pro-Trump China hawks.
The theory that it came from the Wuhan lab is based on circumstantial evidence, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s history of studying coronaviruses in bats, the lab’s proximity to where some of the infections were first diagnosed and China’s lax safety record in its labs.
The World Health Organization has concluded that the virus was not manipulated or produced in a laboratory and said it probably came from an animal, as Chinese officials have asserted.
“It is probable, likely, that the virus is of animal origin,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said April 22.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Trump intelligence chief says COVID-19 not man-made