U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday again pushed the theory that the novel coronavirus originated from a Chinese laboratory, and claimed he’s seen evidence to back it up.
But experts say the idea that the virus somehow escaped the lab before spreading to over 3 million people worldwide — or, worse, that it was man-made in that lab — is “ridiculous,” “foolish” and “implausible.”
Asked at a White House event if he’s seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Trump was quick to go along with the question.
“Yes, yes I have,” he said, though he declined to give specifics. “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
Trump further speculated that, even if it wasn’t man-made, the virus could have escaped the lab by mistake. “Or did somebody do something on purpose?” he added.
“Certainly it could have been stopped,” Trump continued. “They either couldn’t do it from a competence standpoint, or they let it spread.”
The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence says it has ruled out the virus being man-made, but is still investigating the precise source of the global pandemic.
China insists the lab is not to blame. Before Trump’s comments, a spokesperson for its foreign ministry said that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are “unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing.”
Yet the theory has continued to gain traction among conservative media outlets like Fox News, which Trump is known to watch regularly. The network reported in mid-April that sources had identified the so-called “patient zero” as an employee at WIV.
Yuan Zhiming, professor at WIV and the director of its National Biosafety Laboratory, told Reuters this week that “malicious” claims about the lab had been “pulled out of thin air” and contradicted all available evidence. He added the lab strictly implements bio-security procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen.
Scientists have said the likely source of the virus was a so-called “wet market” in Wuhan, where various wildlife was being sold. They also agree that the virus originated in bats, and likely spread to another animal sold at that market — identified as a pangolin — before spreading to humans.
Art Poon, an associate professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry who specializes in the evolution of viruses, says the continued existence of the theories pinning blame on the Wuhan lab is frustrating to the scientific community.
“We have better things to do with out time than to quash these kinds of theories,” he said. “Whether it’s manmade or was set loose from this lab — this is just not a rational thing to be thinking about during this pandemic.”
Jeffrey Joy, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine whose research also focuses on virus evolution, says while the idea this coronavirus escaped the WIV is “conceivable,” it’s also “highly implausible in this case.”
He and Poon both say that the genome itself shows the virus’s origin and spread occurred in nature, which is a common event for several coronaviruses, including the ones that don’t become deadly pandemics.
“These kinds of events happen all the time,” Joy said, pointing not only to the spread of viruses from animal to human, but also between different species of animal — hence the working theory about this coronavirus’s origin.
“It just makes much more sense it happened through this scenario, rather than it being some kind of conspiracy.”
Poon said the research that has led to the world’s understanding of coronaviruses — including its origin in bats — is largely thanks to researchers in China, including those at the WIV.
Those studies have been peer-reviewed and independently verified by researchers around the world, he added, pouring cold water on the idea that the lab is somehow covering up the source or spread of this virus.
“It’s ridiculous to think that this team that’s done so much to further our understanding of these viruses would turn around and commit something like this,” he said. “It’s foolish.”
Kristian Andersen, who is studying the novel coronavirus at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, told the Associated Press that she puts the odds of it being accidentally released by the Wuhan lab at “a million to one,” far less likely than an infection in nature.
U.S. officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in 2018, but they have yet to find any evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later. The lab lies 13 kilometers from the Wuhan wet market identified as a possible source.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who implied China was hiding information useful to tracing the origin of the virus earlier in April, admitted Thursday that there was no definitive proof that the WIV was responsible.
“We don’t know if it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We don’t know if it emanated from the wet market or yet some other place. We don’t know those answers,” Pompeo said in an interview with Newsradio 1040.
Pompeo has called for the lab to allow experts from other countries inside to conduct an independent investigation.
Joy says he doesn’t he doesn’t “put any stock in the idea that a country should be held accountable” for a pandemic. Not only does it interfere with the global goal of curbing the virus’ spread, he says it could lead to other problems.
“If we start finding someone to blame, we could see countries trying to cover things up even more, in order to avoid responsibility,” he said. “And what good would that do if this happens again?”
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters
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