May 7, 2020 - World

What to make of the Trump administration's Wuhan lab theory

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

The Trump administration’s ongoing offensive over China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic now centers on one question: Who was "patient zero?"

Why it matters: China hawks in Washington accuse Beijing of inflicting death and economic destruction upon the world with their lack of transparency around the coronavirus outbreak. They're on a mission to trace that story back to the beginning, when the first human was infected.

The U.S. intelligence community and scientists like Anthony Fauci say there’s now enough evidence to conclude that the virus evolved naturally, putting to rest claims that it was some sort of bioweapon.

That leaves two remaining theories:

  1. The virus naturally jumped from an animal to a human, perhaps at a wet market in Wuhan. This is the most prominent theory.
  2. The virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists had been conducting experiments on coronaviruses. This theory has been pushed by President Trump and, with particular vigor, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo’s case, made in a press conference on Wednesday and a series of media interviews, is the following:

  1. There is “enormous evidence” the virus originated at the lab in Wuhan.
  2. There’s no “certainty” that it did.
  3. There might be certainty if China allowed investigators into the lab, but they’re denying access, which suggests a cover-up.

Between the lines:

  • U.S. and allied intelligence sources, in leaks to several news outlets, have dismissed the “enormous evidence” as a hawkish interpretation of publicly available information about the work the lab does and previous safety concerns.
  • “My conclusion is that there’s absolutely no smoking gun intelligence to suggest that it came from the lab, because these guys would have leaked it,” says Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst who now heads the China Strategies Group consulting firm.
  • The “chatter” collected from China — perhaps from Chinese officials speculating about the origins of the virus — “could be interpreted as circumstantial evidence," Johnson says. "But it’s all about how you want to shape it."
  • As for China’s alleged cover-up, James Palmer of Foreign Policy notes, “The [Chinese Communist Party] behaves this way all the time. Whatever the origins of the coronavirus, the party would refuse access.”

Where things stand:

  • The Australian government believes the virus most likely originated in a wet market and gives the lab theory a 5% probability.
  • U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating the theory, though. Johnson says that's "a conclusion in search of evidence," with "eerie undertones to earlier periods,” like the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Worth noting: Anger with China over its lack of transparency isn’t limited to those who believe the virus began in a lab.

  • Johnson says the administration would have "a much stronger hand" if it focused on "this inconvenient six days when the leadership clearly knew they had something bad on their hands and didn’t tell anyone — their own public or the world."
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