US investigates if virus originated in Chinese lab, but can’t say for sure yet

U.S. intelligence officials looking into the origins of the coronavirus are investigating whether the disease could have been unwittingly carried from a Chinese research lab by an infected employee, ultimately setting off a worldwide pandemic.

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So far authorities have ruled out that the virus was man-made, but they have also pointed to the possible role of a state-run lab in Wuhan that is known for conducting research on coronaviruses and diseases in bats.

"It's a possibility, though not the most likely possibility," one official said, according to a report by NBC News.

Another widely circulated theory, one that some health experts believe, is that the virus first emerged at an open-air, live-animal “wet market” that sells fresh meat and produce in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first documented in late 2019.

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But many other experts also continue to be debate that hypothesis.

Dr. Ronald Waldman, a former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a public health expert at George Washington University, said the theory has fallen out of favor in some quarters, in part because one of the early infected persons had no connection to the market, NBC reports.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in an appearance on NBC’s “TODAY” show Thursday said “this is something we’ve been watching closely now for some time,” but also admitted that “the results are inconclusive” so far to be able to prove the laboratory theory.

He also cited the Chinese government’s lack of transparency for the early difficulties in tracing the virus. According to reports, the Chinese government has refused to share early virus samples with American researchers and has jailed people who attempted to alert the public in the early days of the outbreak.

“A majority of the views now is that it was natural, it was organic,” Esper said about how the virus originated. “I find it hard to trust much of what comes out of the Chinese Communist Party ... I don't have much faith that they’re even being truthful with us now.”

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Thursday that the World Health Organization has indicated there is no evidence that a virology lab in Wuhan was the source of the virus.

Why we picked this story

At our morning team huddle, we discuss stories that are “talkers.” People are primed to look for driving forces in the world, ones that we can explain through our collective experience. This is one example.

At Wednesday’s coronavirus task force press briefing, President Donald Trump was asked about the possibility that the virus sprang from a Chinese lab and then spread to the nearby market after an intern passed it to her boyfriend.

“I don’t want to say that. But I will tell you more and more, we’re hearing the story and we’ll see,” Trump responded. “But we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.”

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Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was one of the earliest voices on Capitol Hill to float the possibility that the virus may have been created in a Chinese bioweapons lab, but has somewhat walked back his hypothesis since February.

“Here’s what we do know,” Cotton said. “The virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market. Epidemiologists … have demonstrated that several of the original cases did not have any contact with that food market. That the virus went into that food market before it came out of that food market.

“So we don’t know where it originated. But we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that. We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level four super-laboratory, that researches human infectious diseases.

“We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.”

The Chinese ambassador to the United States later dismissed Cotton’s theory as “absolutely crazy.”