Coronavirus: US investigates China laboratory leak claim
The Trump administration has ordered US intelligence agencies to investigate reports that the coronavirus may have escaped from a Chinese biological laboratory in Wuhan.
Questions over the origins of the pandemic are part of a larger diplomatic wrestling match between China and the United States in which Washington appears to be gaining ground.
Wuhan’s “wet market”, where live and dead wild and domestic animals are sold, is the most likely source and an infected bat the most likely host, but no definitive evidence has been found.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, confirmed that intelligence agencies were looking at whether an accident at the laboratory could have been responsible. He said that natural causes still looked more likely, however.
The laboratory theory surfaced at Wednesday’s White House coronavirus briefing, when President Trump was asked about a Fox News report that claimed the virus had leaked from the facility because of lax safety protocols. The report said that it infected an intern who then went to Wuhan’s wet market. “More and more we’re hearing the story,” Mr Trump said. “We’ll see.” Some of Wuhan’s wet markets have reopened.
Britain is also examining the theory and has not ruled it out, it is understood. The UK is working with international partners to pinpoint the origins of the disease, knowledge that could aid the development of a vaccine and prevent similar pandemics. However, officials have said that the exact source may never be uncovered.
The laboratory theory was a favourite of right-wing conspiracy theorists, and intelligence agencies have long feared that the laboratory could be part of a biological weapons program.
However, the theory has been undermined by scientists who have studied its genome. The Lancet medical journal said that the virus appeared to have come from wildlife.
Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, has dismissed the laboratory theory as absurd. However, Mr Zhao’s credibility has been questioned after he said that the virus had been introduced to Wuhan by visiting US soldiers.