Senior figures in the Trump administration have put pressure on US intelligence agencies to provide evidence to support claims that the coronavirus outbreak originated in state-run laboratories in China, a report in the New York Times claims.
Intelligence analysts fear Donald Trump is looking for propaganda to be used in the escalating blame game over whether China covered up the crisis or even generated the virus in its laboratories – a theory that remains unproven.
Most scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus provided by China say the overwhelming probability is that it jumped from animal to human in a non-laboratory setting, as was the case with previous pandemics.
The office of the director of national intelligence said in a statement on Thursday that it had concluded that the virus was “not manmade or genetically modified”, but said that officials were still examining whether the origins of the pandemic could be traced to contact with infected animals or an accident at a Chinese lab.
“The intelligence community [IC] also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” said the statement. “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.”
In recent days Trump and his allies have sharpened their rhetoric on China, accusing it of failing to act swiftly enough to stop the spread of the virus or sound the alarm about the outbreak.
Those reported as pushing US intelligence agencies to lend credence to the theory that the virus was created in Chinese labs include the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, and Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence.
In numerous TV interviews, Pompeo has said China suppressed information on the virus and withheld key facts from the World Health Organization, and he has hinted that he believes the virus originated in Chinese laboratories.
But the suggestion that intelligence agencies are being put under pressure to produce evidence represents a step up from such comments. Such a finding would turn the international disaster into something akin to biological warfare, or a lab accident of catastrophic proportions.
More than 1 million people have been infected and more than 60,000 have died in the US from the virus, adding political urgency to Trump’s desire to shift blame for the crisis on to China.
China has been resisting an international inquiry into the origins of the outbreak in Wuhan and, under pressure, says it is a matter for the WHO to investigate. The proposal is unlikely to mollify Trump, who has condemned the WHO as Chinese-centric and has suspended US funding from the UN agency pending a review.
Chris Patten, the former governor general of Hong Kong and a long-term critic of Chinese efforts to control democracy in the former colony, has joined the calls for an international inquiry, accusing China of initially covering up the outbreak.
The calls for an inquiry have been strongest in Australia, leading to a diplomatic confrontation between the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye. The calls have also been supported by Winston Peters, New Zealand’s foreign minister.
Peters said: “It is very hard to conceive, no matter what country it is, of there not being a desire from every country around the world – including the country of origin – for an investigation to find out how this happened.”
Jingye has warned of a Chinese boycott of Australian goods and services.
Beijing has been caught in a bind, with its diplomats sometimes saying it is not even clear whether the virus originated in China, contending that it is a legitimate matter for inquiry by scientists, but then rejecting an international inquiry into the source of the outbreak. Chinese diplomats distinguish between an international inquiry, which they say is likely to be a political blame game, and a dispassionate examination by WHO scientists.
Critics of China counter that the WHO’s record shows it has neither the will nor the investigative powers required to look deep into the entrails of the Chinese Communist party and expose any cover-up. The WHO is dependent on the cooperation of its member states for access and has no mechanism to punish countries that keep its officials in the dark.
Proposals have been floated for the WHO to be given the power to impose sanctions on countries that are not transparent with it, but this proposal would need to pass the WHO’s general assembly, and would require nation states handing over a degree of sovereignty to a multilateral body.
The Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, delivered a lengthy rebuttal to the prospect of an international inquiry last week. “You’re talking about independent investigation. It’s up to the WHO. We support the WHO. We believe we should play by international norms and international rules, not by some other countries’ rules. Some other country even sues China at its local court. It’s absurd,”he said in remarks to the Asia Society in London.
“This is not the first time that some politicians want to play world police. This is not the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. This is not the era when China was still in a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. This is the third decade of the 21st century. Those people cannot understand it. They think they still live in the old days when they can bully China and the world. If the WHO does not act their way, they stop their support and criticise the WHO to be ‘China-centric’. That’s simply not right.
“So we are calling for international cooperation. That’s the only weapon and only way out to win this battle against the virus. Not by scapegoating, not by playing games, not by politicising the virus, not by spreading a political virus.”