Photo: Evan Vucci (AP)
Today in déjà vu: senior Trump administration officials have been pressing U.S. spy agencies to come up with evidence supporting unsubstantiated accusations that the novel coronavirus responsible for the ongoing global pandemic originated in a Chinese lab, according to the New York Times.
The pressure is reportedly coming from several top Trump officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, and National Security Council weapons of mass destruction bureau chief Anthony Ruggiero, despite no credible evidence suggesting this is the case. The Times reported that its sources say Pompeo has pushed especially hard for agencies to come up with intel regarding the theory, while Ruggiero “expressed frustration” during a July teleconference that CIA personnel had not yet come up with a link. CIA analysts responded that they had no compelling evidence for such a conclusion.
One former intelligence official told the paper that the White House was “conclusion shopping,” a euphemism for cooking up a pretext on flimsy evidence that in the past has been used to describe the Bush administration’s buildup to the Iraq War and its hunt for “evidence” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Coming up with an explanation that sounds at least plausible enough to register with the general public could help the Trump administration deflect blame for its disastrous handling of the pandemic in an election year, as well as distract from reports intel agencies repeatedly warned the White House the threat was grave weeks well before it materialized.
It’s clear that the Chinese government attempted to suppress early news of the outbreak in Wuhan province as well as portrayed the situation as under control when it was not. But ten experts in virus research who were consulted by NPR earlier this month agreed there are no signs of human genetic modification in the pathogen’s genome and that it would require an extraordinary string of incidents to be released by mistake.
Potentially infectious samples from animals known to carry communicable diseases, such as bat bodily fluids and waste, are generally deactivated by freezing them in liquid nitrogen before researchers work with them. Much more likely is zoonotic spillover, in which humans contract a disease directly from a host organism—a process that is increasing alongside continued encroachment on animal habitats. A March study conducted by five virus experts published in Nature Medicine concluded that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
“The real risk is in the wild in the way people interact with wildlife around the world,” EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak told NPR. “… Every time we get a new virus emerging, we have people that say, ‘This could have come from a lab.’ It’s a real shame that the conspiracy theories can get to the level they’ve got with policymakers.”
Georgetown University pandemic expert Daniel R. Lucey has also written that strong evidence that the virus was circulating before it hit a seafood market in Wuhan, where it was initially believed to have first spread to humans from an animal, simply indicates that zoonotic spillover happened sometime prior and was not noticed by authorities until it was too late.
Current data is “most consistent with a naturally-occurring spillover infection from an animal species to humans at a different location in September-November,” Lucey wrote. “We have not found evidence to support any theory that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 among humans occurred in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident.”
According to NBC News, the Trump administration has directed the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency to look through “communications intercepts, human source reporting, satellite imagery and other data” to see whether the Chinese government had hidden crucial information about the virus early in the outbreak. Said order also targeted the World Health Organization, which the White House has tried to shift blame onto for the failed U.S. response to its domestic outbreak, and specifically whether the WHO knew about two research labs in the outbreak’s origin in Wuhan that worked on coronavirus research.
Trump is specifically pressing for evidence supporting the conspiracy theory because he wants to blame the Chinese government for the spread of the virus to the U.S., sources told the Times, as well as back his assertion that the U.S. might be able to sue China for damages. (According to the Washington Post, legal experts say any such suit is unlikely to succeed and could easily backfire spectacularly by provoking Chinese retaliation.)
The Times wrote that CIA analysts have failed to generate anything beyond circumstantial evidence and that intelligence analysts have repeatedly cautioned the White House that where the virus came from is a problem better suited for scientists, not spies.
In a statement to the Times, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote that it “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.” It added that the U.S. intelligence community agrees “with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”