National Security

Five things to know as intelligence community probes coronavirus’s origins

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The U.S. intelligence community this week for the first time publicly said it is investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus, including whether it might have emerged from a Chinese laboratory in the city of Wuhan.

In a rare statement, the intelligence community said it was rigorously examining evidence 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.”

Conservatives have pushed the lab theory as the Trump administration makes a concerted effort to blame Beijing for a pandemic that has killed more than 60,000 people in the United States.

President Trump has repeatedly emphasized that the virus came from China as he has come under criticism for his own response to the virus, which he said earlier this year might disappear with warm weather.

Here are five things you need to know about the developments: 

The intelligence community is back in the spotlight 

The statement for the intelligence community has put it in the spotlight of the emerging debate.

One former intelligence official observed that the unusual statement seemed designed to set the record straight about the intelligence community’s position with respect to the investigation, after a series of press reports highlighted the existence of the probe. 

The statement was issued after The New York Times reported Thursday that Trump administration officials were pressing spy agencies to look for evidence to support the lab theory. 

The White House has denied the existence of such pressure.

“I can assure you that no one is pressing the intelligence community to come to a determination,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Friday. 

The intelligence community has regularly been a source of focus during the Trump administration, with Trump criticizing the FBI over its handling of the Russia investigation and dismissing officials who he has viewed as disloyal. 

In their statement, the intelligence agencies said they agree with the assessment of the scientific community that the virus was not “manmade or genetically modified,” a statement that further undermines fringe conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered.

Health experts are skeptical of the lab theory 

The health community has focused on the idea that the virus was transferred from an animal to a human and have expressed doubt that it emerged accidentally from a lab.

Scientists who have studied the genetic makeup of coronavirus say it is highly probable that COVID-19, like SARS, Ebola and HIV, was first transmitted from animals.

It can take years to figure out where a virus first originated, and scientists are still developing a consensus on the coronavirus.

The likeliest animal host is a bat, the source of some other coronaviruses and maladies such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses. And the jump between an animal carrier and a human can take place in any number of ways, including consumption or a bite.

Many of the first coronavirus patients had links to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told The Hill there was “zero evidence” of the virus originating in a lab and said that studies of COVID-19 conducted by independent scientists suggest that is not the case. 

“There would be certainly zero reason why China would intentionally do it,” Gostin said. “And even if you want to assume that it was an accidental release, which is also unlikely, why would they be working on this particular coronavirus? What particular scientific value would it have?” 

Trump says he’s seen evidence of ties to lab but isn’t ‘allowed’ to detail it

Trump on Thursday answered in the affirmative when asked if he had seen evidence giving him confidence the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

The intelligence community has not offered up any evidence. Trump said later he wasn’t “allowed” to share any details. 

“I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that,” Trump told reporters. 

McEnany insisted Friday that Trump’s statement was “in perfect concert” with the intelligence community statement. 

At one point Thursday, Trump also speculated the virus may have been released as a result of a “mistake” and even mused about the possibility it could have been unleashed purposefully. 

A top official at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has denied any link between the virus and the lab.

Trump administration officials have toughened their rhetoric on China in recent weeks, accusing Beijing of not being forthcoming with information about the outbreak. Reports about early efforts by Chinese authorities to silence doctors raising alarm about the virus, as well as those saying China manipulated its case numbers, have aided their claims. 

The administration is currently weighing options to punish Beijing for its handling of the outbreak. 

This all comes as Trump endures scrutiny for his own lagged response to the pandemic. Trump minimized the severity of the outbreak early on and also expressed appreciation for China’s work and transparency in confronting the outbreak in late January. 

China is under pressure to cooperate 

The Chinese Communist Party is coming under pressure not only from the United States but also other corners of the globe to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus. 

Australia has pushed for an independent inquiry of the origins of the pandemic, drawing ire from Beijing, which has in turn threatened a trade boycott.

On Thursday, the European Union backed calls for an inquiry into the origins of the virus and said Beijing should contribute to the investigation. 

U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a vocal critic of China, have been stepping up pressure on Beijing for weeks, accusing China of not being transparent. Pompeo on Wednesday demanded access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

“We don’t know precisely where this virus originated from,” he said. 

China has vehemently denied the Trump administration’s charges that it withheld information about the virus and accused the United States of “political manipulation.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said this week that American officials are trying “to shirk their responsibility for their own poor epidemic prevention and control measures and divert public attention.” 

The theory is already causing political debate 

The idea that the virus came from a lab has already emerged as a source of debate among politicians, and there is likely going to be increased focus on it as the administration looks to punish China for its handling of the virus. 

While Republicans have framed it as a hunt for the truth and a chance to hit a geopolitical foe, Democrats see it as a possible opportunity for the president to turn an unproven theory into a political cudgel to knock back blame heading into the 2020 presidential election, where he has lost his economic and incumbent advantage.

Initially, the theory largely began to get traction among right-wing figures, including GOP allies of the president. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been vocal in pushing the theory that the virus did not come from an animal market. 

While intelligence lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say it is a matter to be further examined, citing China’s record of obscuring the truth, Democrats and former intelligence officials have also voiced concern about the potential for Trump administration officials to politicize intelligence as they look to point the finger at China.  

“What I worry about is this now seems to be the focus of the White House and the president’s animosity and I am concerned if the White House is trying to influence our intelligence product,” Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC on Wednesday.

Tags Animal virology Beijing China Coronavirus Donald Trump Mark Warner Mike Pompeo Tom Cotton Wuhan

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