By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. spy agency said for the first time on Thursday the American intelligence community believes the COVID-19 virus that originated in China was not manmade or genetically modified.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence statement contradicted conspiracy theories floated by anti-China activists and some supporters of President Donald Trump suggesting the new coronavirus was developed by Chinese scientists in a government biological weapons laboratory from which it then escaped.
It also echoed comments by the World Health Organization (WHO), which on April 21 said all available evidence suggests the coronavirus originated in animals in China late last year and was not manipulated or made in a laboratory.
“The Intelligence Community (IC) also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement.
“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,” it added.
U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reporting and analysis have said for weeks they do not believe conspiracy theories that Chinese scientists developed the coronavirus in a government biological weapons lab from which it then escaped.
Rather, they have said they believe it either was introduced naturally into a Wuhan meat market or could have escaped from one of two Wuhan government laboratories believed to be conducting civilian research into possible biological hazards.
Trump, who has heaped blame on China for the global pandemic, on Thursday said he believes China’s handling of the disease is proof that Beijing “will do anything they can” to make him lose his re-election bid in November.
More than 3.21 million people have been infected by the novel coronavirus globally, and 227,864 have died, according to a Reuters tally as of 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Thursday.
In an Oval Office interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Trump talked tough on China and said he was looking at different options in terms of consequences for Beijing over the virus. “I can do a lot,” he said, without providing details.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; writing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)