May 6, 2020 - World

U.S. statements on coronavirus origins diverge from allies

Illustration of gloved hand holding a compass
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In the past week or so, Americans have been inundated with intelligence reports and other information relating to the origins of the coronavirus. Yet these leaks seem at times to present conflicting information.

The big picture: The U.S. is bullish on the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak started with a lab accident in China. But U.S. allies say that's unlikely.

What's happening: In leaked reports and recent statements, U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized the possibility that the epidemic resulted from accidental transmission in a Chinese lab, perhaps the Wuhan Institute of Virology,

  • A set of leaked State Department cables from officials who visited the WIV on January 2018, and published by the Washington Post on April 14, warned of safety issues at the lab.
  • The messages also noted that the lab's research on coronaviruses from bats showed that such viruses had potential for human-to-human transmission and thus posed a risk of pandemic.
  • Anonymous officials told Fox News on April 15 that the U.S. government has "increasing confidence" that the epidemic started accidentally at a Chinese lab.

But here's where it starts to get complicated:

  • In a rare public statement on April 30, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the intelligence community was still investigating the matter, implying they did not have that degree of certainty.
  • What they're saying: "The IC 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.” 

The next day, however, President Trump seemed to contradict his own intelligence agencies by emphasizing the link once again.

  • Trump said on May 1 that he has a "high degree of confidence" that the outbreak originated in a lab accident in China.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 3 interview: "While the intelligence community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan."

But, but, but: U.S. allies who have had access to shared intelligence don't seem to agree with that assessment.

The Five Eyes dossier: A 15-page report prepared by governments of the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing partnership between the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., found:

  • China's cover-up in the early days of the epidemic cost tens of thousands of lives, but it doesn't place the blame squarely on a lab.
  • The Australian government believes there is just a 5% chance the virus came from the WIV and says it more likely originated in a wet market.

Anonymous Western officials then told CNN it was "highly unlikely" the coronavirus spread via a lab accident, citing an intelligence report seen by the Five Eyes countries.

The bottom line: The U.S. position is increasingly at odds with what its intelligence-sharing partners are saying.

Go deeper: The Chinese lab at the center of the coronavirus controversy

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