Coronavirus: US military says bug likely occurred naturally and not created in lab, but not certain

General Mark Milley addresses a news conference as Defence Secretary Mark Esper listens at the Pentagon, April 14, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US intelligence indicates that the coronavirus likely occurred naturally, as opposed to being created in a laboratory in China, but there is no certainty either way, the top US general said on Tuesday (April 14).

The remarks by Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could fan speculation about the coronavirus' origins - something China has dismissed as a conspiracy theory that is unhelpful to the fight against the pandemic.

Asked whether he had any evidence that the virus began in a Chinese laboratory and was perhaps released accidentally, Milley was non-committal at a Pentagon news briefing.

"There's a lot of rumour and speculation in a wide variety of media, the blog sites, etc. It should be no surprise to you that we've taken a keen interest in that and we've had a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that," Milley said.

"And I would just say, at this point, it's inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But we don't know for certain."

Milley's comments could again stoke tension with Beijing, where Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian wrote on Twitter last month that the US Army might have "brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

The claim was denounced by the US government and angered US President Donald Trump, who cited it when he called the coronavirus "the Chinese virus" in briefings.

The State Department said at the time that China was seeking to deflect criticism of its role in "starting a global pandemic and not telling the world".

As far back as February, the Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology pushed back against rumours that the virus may have been artificially synthesised at one of its laboratories or perhaps got out from there.

The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China.

The broad scientific consensus holds Sars-CoV-2, the virus' official name, originated in bats.

A Washington Post opinion column published on Tuesday said the US State Department in 2018 warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management weaknesses at a WIV laboratory.

The Post noted that scientists largely agreed that the virus came from animals, as opposed to being synthesised. But it quoted one expert saying that did not rule out that it may have emerged from the WIV laboratory, which spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to directly address the Washington Post column in interviews on Tuesday.

"We know this is a global pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China. We know that there were wet markets there. So we're beginning to piece the facts together," Pompeo said in a radio interview.

A team of 27 scientists published a statement in the Lancet medical journal in February condemning the conspiracy theories, which "do nothing but create fear, rumours and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus".

They said scientists from around the world "overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife".

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