Coronavirus: Bug not man-made or genetically modified, says US intelligence

An engineer shows a plastic model of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Beijing on April 29, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US intelligence agencies don't believe the Covid-19 coronavirus was created by humans or genetically modified in China, a controversial finding that comes as President Donald Trump increasingly tries to pin blame on Beijing for the global pandemic.

The intelligence community "concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man made or genetically modified," according to a statement from the DNI office on Thursday (April 30).

The statement goes on to say the nation's intelligence community "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," referring to the Chinese city where the virus was first reported.

The findings come as Trump ratchets up pressure on China over its pandemic response. He said he's ordered an investigation into how the virus emerged as conspiracy theories - some promoted by key Trump supporters - circulate suggesting that it may have been created at a lab, or escaped from one, in Wuhan. The statement on Thursday suggested that probe is already under way.

The origin of the virus has emerged as a flash point in the pandemic and ratcheted up tensions between the Trump administration and China.

The president and senior officials including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had made a habit of referring to the outbreak as the "Wuhan virus" or the "China virus" before toning that language down as the US continued to rely on Chinese shipments of medical equipment to stem the outbreak.

That restraint appears to be ending.

"As we do in all crises, the community's experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to US national security," according to the statement.

The move comes as Americans increasingly disapprove of Trump's handling of the outbreak and the US economy plunges into recession, with about 30 million people losing their jobs over the past six weeks.

Some 55 per cent of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the pandemic, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Wednesday, while other surveys show the president trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states.

While the assessment by US intelligence agencies undercuts the idea that the virus was deliberately made or modified from an existing virus, it doesn't rule out the possibility that the virus escaped, accidentally or deliberately, from a Chinese lab, a notion Chinese officials have rejected.

Yet China helped escalate the blame game with the US in March when a foreign ministry spokesman shared speculation on social media that American military personnel introduced the virus to Wuhan.

Trump said in an interview with Reuters published on Wednesday that China's response to the disease was focused on a desire to see him lose in November.

The president, who has previously praised his relationship with President Xi Jinping, provided no evidence for why China would deliberately mishandle an outbreak that has killed more than 4,600 of its citizens.

Regardless, Trump said he was considering various ways to punish Beijing.

"China will do anything they can to have me lose this race," Trump said in the Oval Office interview. He didn't elaborate what punitive actions he might take, but added: "There are many things I can do."

Trump also said that the US trade deal with China had been "upset very badly" by the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. The slowdown has made it more difficult for China to meet purchasing pledges included in a "phase one" trade pact reached between the two sides in January.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded on Thursday that the country had "no interest" in interfering in internal US affairs.

"For some time, certain US politicians, in disregard of the facts, have attempted to shift their own responsibility for their poor handling of the epidemic to others," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters, reiterating a past complaint in response to a question about Trump's remarks.

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