For nearly a year, speculation has swirled about whether the novel coronavirus outbreak began in a Wuhan wet market or was actually accidentally leaked from a lab in the Chinese city.
China has done its utmost to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus, which subsequently turned into the global pandemic that has killed 1.87 million people around the world.
Now, there is a “growing body of evidence” that the outbreak may have indeed originated from the lab, according to a top U.S. national security official.
Matthew Pottinger, who has served as deputy national security adviser since September 2019 after serving as the National Security Council’s Asia director starting in 2017, made the remarks during a virtual conference discussion with British lawmakers associated with the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China last week, as speculation about where COVID-19 got its deadly start has increased, with the World Health Organization planning a belated mission to China in the coming days.
“There is a growing body of evidence to say that a laboratory leak or accident is very much a credible possibility,” Pottinger said last week, without specifying what this evidence was. “Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story.”
These remarks, confirmed with the Washington Examiner by a senior administration official, differ slightly from what was reported by the Mail on Sunday over the weekend, which quoted Pottinger as saying that “there is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus.”
Pottinger was referring to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a biosafety level 4 lab in China that researches infectious diseases, including bat coronaviruses. Concerns have also been raised about the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t know of anybody in the federal government with access to all of the information that does not believe that this is a plausible scenario — if not the most plausible scenario,” an administration official told the Washington Examiner when speaking of the Wuhan lab escape hypothesis.
Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Marine veteran, told the conference that “[members of parliament] around the world have a moral role to play in exposing the WHO investigation as a Potemkin exercise” — meaning an impressive facade designed to hide undesirable facts, a reference to stories of a fake village constructed to impress Catherine the Great.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, said during a news conference on Tuesday, “Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” claiming to be “very disappointed with this news.”
A senior administration official told the Washington Examiner that “the Chinese Communist Party failed to share reliable information on the origins of COVID-19 to date,” and “in its disinformation campaign, the CCP is claiming that COVID-19 originated outside of Wuhan.” The official lamented that “the WHO has yet to announce when an international experts team will be able to enter” China, despite a World Health Assembly resolution adopted last May calling for an investigation, and contended that “the WHO has enabled and condoned the secrecy with which the CCP has been operating.”
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner that “the genome sequence of the outbreak virus indicates that its progenitor was either the bat coronavirus RaTG13 or a closely related bat coronavirus” and said COVID-19 arising in nature or escaping through a lab accident were both plausible.
“Bat coronaviruses are present in nature in multiple parts of China. Therefore, the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident, with a virus passing from bat to human, possibly through another animal. There is clear precedent for this: The first entry of the SARS virus into the human population occurred as a natural accident in a rural part of Guangdong province in 2002,” Ebright said. “Bat coronaviruses are collected and studied by laboratories in multiple parts of China — including Wuhan Municipal CDC and Wuhan Institute of Virology. Therefore, the first human infection also could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with a virus accidentally infecting a laboratory worker.”
A study published in Nature in July said it found evidence “indicating that the lineage giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating unnoticed in bats for decades.”
The New York Times reported in November that “as it praised Beijing, the World Health Organization concealed concessions to China and may have sacrificed the best chance to unravel the virus’s origins.” An Associated Press investigation published in late December detailed how “China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origin.” A piece for New York magazine this week concluded, “It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out.” The article said that “there is no direct evidence” for “zoonotic possibilities … just as there is no direct evidence for an experimental mishap.”
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who caused a stir in February when he suggested the Wuhan lab as a possible origin, told the Washington Examiner Tuesday that “the Chinese Communist Party has thwarted investigations into the coronavirus’s origins,” but “circumstantial evidence points to the Wuhan lab, where accidental release remains the most likely scenario — but we cannot rule out other origins, including a natural transmission.”
U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about biosecurity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One “sensitive but unclassified” State Department cable warned about a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
The cable also mentioned meeting with Shi Zhengli, the head of the coronavirus research effort at the Wuhan lab, known as “bat woman” for her yearslong research related to diseases in bats. In March, Shi told Scientific American she originally “wondered if [the municipal health authority] got it wrong” and admitted asking herself, “Could they have come from our lab?” But the magazine said she “breathed a sigh of relief when … none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves.” Shi told Chinese state television in August that “there could not possibly have been a lab leak.”
President Trump wouldn't confirm reports about an accidental infection at the Wuhan lab when asked during a White House briefing in April but noted that “more and more we’re hearing the story.” When pressed on whether he had raised it with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said, “I don’t want to discuss what I talked to him about the laboratory.”
The WHO concluded the COVID-19 virus first appeared in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, near the end of 2019, and an investigative report in February found “early cases identified in Wuhan are believed to have acquired infection from a zoonotic source” in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed to reporters in April that military intelligence was looking into the coronavirus origins.
In May, a senior intelligence official told the Washington Examiner that a majority of the intelligence community's 17 spy agencies believed the coronavirus likely originated with an accidental lab escape from a Wuhan lab.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence weighed in that month, noting that “the Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” The statement said the spy community had not yet reached a conclusion on how the coronavirus first originated in China. The ODNI declined to provide the Washington Examiner with further details in recent days.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in early May that “there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan” and that “these are not the first times that we've had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab.”
GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, ranking member on House Foreign Affairs, released a report in September on the coronavirus, concluding that “the CCP’s lies, cover-up, and oppression of whistleblowers cost thousands of Chinese citizens and hundreds of thousands of others around the world their lives.”
McCaul’s spokeswoman, Leslie Shedd, told the Washington Examiner this week the committee would like to see what evidence the Trump administration possesses.
“We’ve seen these reports as well and are interested to see the additional information the administration claims it has,” she said. “We’ve requested it but so far haven’t gotten anything.”
“I wouldn’t put it past the CCP to cover something like this up in a desperate attempt to save face but – as our report states – the vast majority of the scientific community is convinced it didn’t come from the lab. So if there is some new evidence, I really hope the administration shares that with Congress ASAP. The world deserves to know the truth.”
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