U.S. Spies See No Human Role in Making or Modifying Coronavirus

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe the Covid-19 coronavirus was created by humans or genetically modified in China, a controversial finding that comes as President Donald Trump increasingly tries to pin blame on Beijing for the global pandemic.

The intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man made or genetically modified,” according to a statement from the DNI office on Thursday.

The statement goes on to say the nation’s intelligence community “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,” referring to the Chinese city where the virus was first reported.

The findings come as Trump ratchets up pressure on China over its pandemic response. He said he’s ordered an investigation into how the virus emerged as conspiracy theories -- some promoted by key Trump supporters -- circulate suggesting that it may have been created at a lab, or escaped from one, in Wuhan. The statement Thursday suggested that probe is already underway.

The origin of the virus has emerged as a flash point in the pandemic and ratcheted up tensions between the Trump administration and China. The president and senior officials including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had made a habit of referring to the outbreak as the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus” before toning that language down as the U.S. continued to rely on Chinese shipments of medical equipment to stem the outbreak.

That restraint appears to be ending.

“As we do in all crises, the community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security,” according to the DNI statement.

However, the Trump administration should bear some responsibility if the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan because it was providing funding to the lab, said Michael Morell, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“If it did escape from the lab, not only bad on China but also bad on the United States for providing funding for research to a lab that had safety concerns,” Morell said Thursday during a virtual event hosted by The Hayden Center. “This is not a gotcha for China. This is a gotcha for both of us.”

Morell said he thinks it was “very good idea” for the DNI office to release a statement because it signals that U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t become politicized. He said top Trump officials like Pompeo have been “all over the map” making comments about the origins of the virus.

In the end, U.S. intelligence may never be able to determine the origins of the virus, said Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel for the National Security Agency.

‘Smoking Gun’

“If you think about the kind of intelligence we’d need to uncover, we’d really have to find some kind of smoking gun, some kind of email or some admission on the part of the Chinese that there was an accident and it was covered up,” Gerstell said during the online event. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we never end up with the actual definitive answer.”

Trump’s move to blame China comes as Americans increasingly disapprove of Trump’s handling of the outbreak and the U.S. economy plunges into recession, with about 30 million people losing their jobs over the past six weeks. Some 55% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Wednesday, while other surveys show the president trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states.

While the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies undercuts the idea that the virus was deliberately made or modified from an existing virus, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the virus escaped, accidentally or deliberately, from a Chinese lab, a notion Chinese officials have rejected.

Yet China helped escalate the blame game with the U.S. in March when a foreign ministry spokesman shared speculation on social media that American military personnel introduced the virus to Wuhan.

Trump said in an interview with Reuters published Wednesday that China’s response to the disease was focused on a desire to see him lose in November. The president, who has previously praised his relationship with President Xi Jinping, provided no evidence for why China would deliberately mishandle an outbreak that has killed more than 4,600 of its citizens. Regardless, Trump said he was considering various ways to punish Beijing.

“China will do anything they can to have me lose this race,” Trump said in the Oval Office interview. He didn’t elaborate what punitive actions he might take, but added: “There are many things I can do.”

Trump also said that the U.S. trade deal with China had been “upset very badly” by the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. The slowdown has made it more difficult for China to meet purchasing pledges included in a “phase one” trade pact reached between the two sides in January.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded Thursday that the country had “no interest” in interfering in internal U.S. affairs. “For some time, certain U.S. politicians, in disregard of the facts, have attempted to shift their own responsibility for their poor handling of the epidemic to others,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters, reiterating a past complaint in response to a question about Trump’s remarks.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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