‘Enormous evidence’ coronavirus originated in Chinese lab
The United States has escalated its campaign to hold China accountable for the spread of the coronavirus, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming there is "enormous evidence" the virus originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan.
The bio-containment facility in question, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has called that theory "impossible". No proof has emerged publicly to back it up. But in recent days, Mr Pompeo and President Donald Trump have both indicated the evidence is strong.
At a media conference last Thursday, Mr Trump was asked whether he had seen "anything" that gave him a "high degree of confidence" that the virus came from the lab.
"Yes, I have," Mr Trump replied.
Pressed to elaborate on what exactly he had seen, the President stonewalled.
"I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that," he said.
Mr Pompeo was interviewed on US ABC's This Week overnight. Host Martha Raddatz posed the same question Mr Trump had faced - had Mr Pompeo seen anything to give him a "high degree of confidence" in the lab theory?
"There's enormous evidence that this is where this began," Mr Pompeo said.
"China has a history of infecting the world. And they have a history of running substandard laboratories. These are not the first times that we've had a world exposed to viruses as the result of failures in a Chinese lab.
"So while the intelligence committee continues to do its work - they should continue to do that and verify so that we are certain - I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan."
Just as Mr Trump had done days earlier, Mr Pompeo declined to describe the evidence in any more detail.
NEW: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells @MarthaRaddatz China “did all that it could to make sure the world didn’t learn in a timely fashion” about COVID-19.— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) May 3, 2020
"It was a classic communist disinformation effort," he adds and they will be held "accountable." https://t.co/EKV20Fhx2H pic.twitter.com/YrQRGkeYNk
Raddatz went on to ask whether Mr Pompeo believed the virus was "man-made or genetically modified".
"Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point," Mr Pompeo replied.
His answer was an explosive one. It contradicted the prevailing opinion among scientists that the virus is most likely of natural origin, and spread from an animal to a human.
However under further questioning, Mr Pompeo seemed to indicate he had misspoken.
"Your office of the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) says the scientific consensus was not man-made or genetically modified," Raddatz pointed out.
"That's right, I agree with that," he said.
"Yeah, I've seen their analysis, I've seen the summary that you saw that was released publicly. I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate," he clarified.
Finally, Raddatz asked about the theory - also unsubstantiated so far - that China released the virus on purpose. Mr Trump flirted with that provocative idea on Thursday, though he appeared to be speculating, rather than basing his comments on any evidence.
"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 President mused.
"Certainly it could have been stopped. They either couldn't do it from a competence standpoint, or they let it spread."
Mr Pompeo said nothing to confirm the theory, but he didn't shoot it down either, blaming China's refusal to allow international experts into its labs for a lack of information.
"I don't have anything to say about that. I think there's a lot to know. But I can say this - we've done our best to try and answer all of those questions," he said.
"I can't answer your question on that because the Chinese Communist Party has refused to co-operate with world health experts."
That tied into Mr Pompeo's broader critique of China's opaque response to the pandemic, which he characterised as a cover-up.
"The Chinese Communist Party did all that it could to make sure that the world didn't learn in a timely fashion about what was taking place," the Secretary of State said.
"There's lots of evidence of that.
"We've seen the fact that they kicked journalists out; we saw the fact that those who were trying to report on this, medical professionals inside of China, were silenced. All the kinds of things that authoritarian regimes do.
"This is classic communist disinformation. That created enormous risk, and now you can see hundreds of thousands of people in the world, tens of thousands in the United States have been harmed.
"We're going to hold those responsible accountable, and we'll do so on a timeline that is our own."
He finished the interview by pivoting back to that message.
"Here's what's important. The Chinese Communist Party had the opportunity to prevent all the calamity that has befallen the world," Mr Pompeo said.
"This is an enormous crisis, created by the fact that the Chinese Communist Party reverted to form, reverted to the kinds of disinformation and concealment that authoritarian regimes do.
"Had those scientists been operating in America, they would have put this out, there would have been an exchange of ideas and we would have quickly identified the kinds of things that needed to be done in response.
"I think the whole world is united in saying that China brought this virus to the world."
Last week the DNI confirmed the lab accident scenario was still being considered as a possibility, but ruled out the idea that the virus was man-made.
"The intelligence community concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified," he said.
"The 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."
China, for its part, has said the lab theory is "purely fabricated out of nothing".
Mr Pompeo's latest comments came after The Saturday Telegraph reported that China had "deliberately suppressed or destroyed" evidence about the outbreak in an "assault on international transparency" that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The report cited a 15-page dossier on the coronavirus, prepared by the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agencies of the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
According to The Telegraph, the Australian government believes the virus probably originated in a Wuhan wet market, but thinks there is a remote chance - around 5 per cent or so - that it did accidentally leak from the lab.
Mr Trump's political opponents say he is trying to shift blame to China in an attempt to avoid responsibility for his own handling of the pandemic, which has resulted in the United States having by far the largest number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
The country's death toll now exceeds 68,000, and it is approaching 1.2 million confirmed cases.
"Not wanting to take responsibility as the deaths continue to mount, he blames others," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, for example.
In addition to focusing on China, Mr Trump has also been sharply critical of the World Health Organisation. He's suspended American financial support for the institution, saying it moved too slowly to alert the world to the gravity of the disease and was insufficiently sceptical of China's involvement.
Mr Trump himself repeatedly praised China during the early weeks of the pandemic, thanking President Xi Jinping for his "transparency" and saying he had handled the crisis "really well".
- with wires
Originally published as 'Enormous evidence' for virus theory