WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has speculated that China could have unleashed the coronavirus on the world due to some kind of horrible "mistake," and his intelligence agencies said they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.
Trump even suggested Thursday that the release could have been intentional.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the clearinghouse for the web of U.S. spy agencies, said it had ruled out the virus being man-made but was still investigating the precise source of the global pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide.
Though scientists suggest the likeliest origin of the pandemic remains natural, that it spread from an infected animal to a human, Trump claimed to have seen evidence to support the theory that the origin was an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the Chinese outbreak.
He said the U.S. now "is finding how it came out."
"It's a terrible thing that happened," the president said. "Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose."
The intel statement said the federal agencies concur "with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified."
"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."
In recent days the Trump administration has sharpened its rhetoric on China, accusing the geopolitical foe and vital trading partner of failing to act swiftly enough to sound the alarm about the outbreak or to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. U.S. officials have said the Chinese government should "pay a price" for its handling of the pandemic.
This all comes as the pace of Trump's own original response continues to come under scrutiny, questioned as too meager and too slow.
Earlier Thursday, before Trump's comments, the Chinese government said that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are "unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cited the institute's director, Yuan Zhiming, as saying the lab strictly implements bio-security procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen.
"I would like to point out again that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and it should be studied by scientists and professionals," Geng said.
He also criticized those in the U.S. who say China should be held accountable for the global pandemic, saying they should spend their time on "better controlling the epidemic situation at home."
At the White House, Trump repeatedly blamed China for its handling of the outbreak, criticizing the country for restricting domestic travel to slow the virus but not international travel to keep it from spreading abroad.
"Certainly it could have been stopped," Trump said during an event in the East Room on his administration's efforts to aid seniors during the outbreak. "They either couldn't do it from a competence standpoint, or they let it spread."
"It got loose, let's say, and they could have capped it."
Earlier this month, Trump addressed the lab theory saying, "More and more, we're hearing the story." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added at the time, "The mere fact that we don't know the answers — that China hasn't shared the answers — I think is very, very telling."
Pompeo also pressed China to let outside experts into the lab "so that we can determine precisely where this virus began."
While Trump and Pompeo have made their feelings clear, a U.S. intelligence official disputed the notion that there was pressure on agencies to bolster a particular theory. The intelligence official was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. Even so, Pompeo and others have pointed fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the SARS virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people.
"We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was," Pompeo said two weeks ago. The institute has an address 8 miles, or 13 kilometers, from the market that is considered a possible source.
U.S. officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but they have yet to find any evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later.
Scientists studying the virus for months have made clear they believe it wasn't man-made but are still working to determine a point at which it may have jumped from animals to humans.
Early attention focused on the live-animal market in Wuhan where the first cases were reported in December. But the first person identified with the disease had no known connection to that market.
Kristian Andersen, who studies the virus at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, 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. But virus expert David O'Connor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said he thinks too little is known to rule out any source, except the idea the virus was man-made. Finding the source is important, he said, because it may harbor the next pandemic virus.
The U.S. was providing funding to the Wuhan lab for its research on coronaviruses, Michael Morell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, said Thursday.
He said State Department cables indicate that there have been concerns in past years among U.S. officials about the safety protocols at that lab. If the virus did escape from a Chinese lab, it not only reflects negatively on China but also on the United States for providing research funding to a lab that has safety concerns, Morell said during an online forum hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University.
"So if it did escape, we're all in this together," Morell said. "This is not a gotcha for China. This is a gotcha for both of us."