US intelligence community under pressure to link virus and Wuhan labs
By Zhang Mengxu
People's Daily app

File photo Wuhan.jpg

A worker is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan. (File photo: AFP)

Washington(People's Daily) - US President Trump said Thursday he had seen evidence suggesting that the coronavirus originated from a laboratory in China while continuing his criticism of the World Health Organization's ties to Beijing, comparing the group to a public relations agency.

Trump was asked if he knew of anything that gave him confidence that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. "Yes, I have," he said, without further explanation.

However, Trump's remarks are inconsistent with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). 

The US intelligence community "concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified," the ODNI said in a statement on Thursday.

The agency went on to confirm in its statement that it is still investigating the origins of the outbreak, including the theory, pushed by some in the White House, that it was the result of a lab accident in Wuhan.

Current and former national security officials said they were surprised by the release. They suggested it could be a sign that the intelligence community feels it is being pulled into a political battle. The administration has been pressuring analysts, particularly at the CIA, to search for evidence that the virus came from a lab and that the World Health Organization helped China cover it up, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

According to the New York Times' report, Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken the lead in pushing American intelligence agencies for more information, according to current and former officials. Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who reported on SARS outbreaks as a journalist in China, pressed intelligence agencies in January to gather the information that might support any origin theory linked to a lab.

Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with HIV, ebola and SARS.

A former intelligence official described the senior aides' repeated emphasis of the lab theory as "conclusion shopping," a disparaging term among analysts that has echoes of the Bush administration's 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to Al Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence.

Kristian G. Andersen, a specialist in infectious disease at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, acknowledged that it was theoretically possible that a researcher had found the new virus, fully evolved, in a bat or other animal and taken it into the lab. But, he said, based on the evidence his team gathered and the numerous opportunities for infection in the interactions that many farmers, hunters, and others have with wild animals, "there just isn't a reason to consider the lab as a potential explanation."

No evidence supports the theory that the coronavirus originated "in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident," Daniel R. Lucey, an expert on pandemics at Georgetown University who has closely tracked what is known about the origins, wrote this week.