Did COVID-19 Originate in a Chinese Lab?

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Shortly after the detection of COVID-19 in China late last year, local authorities determined that the virus most likely spread from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan. However, evidence to prove this origin source remains slightly inconclusive, as the wet market in question was thoroughly cleaned in the wake of the virus’ detection. Some people have thus suggested other origin stories for COVID-19, and though far less evidence exists in favor of these other theories, prominent voices are beginning to tout them.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on a prominent weekly network TV show and claimed that Chinese scientists manufactured SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to COVID-19, in a laboratory. According to Pompeo, “the best experts so far” believe the virus to be a laboratory invention rather than a virus transmitted from animals to humans. However, the intelligence community at large has found no evidence to support this claim.

In fact, leading voices in intelligence have concluded with strong certainty that SARS-CoV-2 is not a manmade virus. Just days before Pompeo’s comments on network TV, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) shared widely accepted findings that not only was SARS-CoV-2 not made in a laboratory, but it was also not genetically modified. Pompeo, despite voicing his belief that the virus was manmade, also appeared to agree with last week’s DNI report during the same network TV appearance on which he touted unproven laboratory origin theories. When the interviewer brought up the report’s findings, Pompeo said, “That’s right. I agree with that.”

Pompeo’s comments yesterday followed a series of similar remarks from the Trump administration in the days prior. On Thursday, shortly after the DNI report was published, Donald Trump also claimed to have evidence that Chinese scientists manufactured the virus, but he insisted that he was not allowed to share this evidence. The DNI report notes that both the intelligence community and the scientific community agree that SARS-CoV-2 was not manufactured in a laboratory.

Other public health and political figures have commented on Trump and Pompeo’s claims. Gauden Galea, who represents the World Health Organization (WHO) in China, asserted that all available evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 originating naturally and being transmitted from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan. In addition to WHO’s investigation, independent work commissioned by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has likewise suggested that the virus is indeed natural. However, WHO’s Galea also admitted that two virology labs in Wuhan have yet to share their records with the organization’s investigators.

China has continued to deny allegations that SARS-CoV-2 was produced in a Chinese laboratory. On Monday, Chinese state media sources published articles attacking Pompeo and the Trump administration for what these publications labeled “groundless accusations.” These publications have also demanded that Pompeo share the evidence in question and accused the United States of waging a propaganda campaign against China. Chinese state media has also alleged that the Trump administration is blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic to distract from the administration’s alleged mishandling of the pandemic, which could potentially (despite favorable polling numbers) make his presidential reelection campaign more challenging.

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