In the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged U.S. cities toward claiming more than 592,000 American lives, a group of senior U.S. national security officials were vigorously watching- see in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is recognized in the scientific community for research on coronaviruses to protect against attacks such as the SARS epidemic, which was first recognized in China in 2002. But to some officials, some are working at the State Department and The White House, the location of the lab in the same town where the coronavirus disease started was a frightening coincidence.
In the run-up to the pandemic, along with the officers, who were looking for information that could show whether the pandemia was triggered by careless or poor lab research, a number of current officers and others aware of their work as told in the conversations. Their search was partly conducted by a State Department team under Secretary Mike Pompeo that first examined China’s compliance with international arms agreements, and then focused lab attention and evidence on suspected military activity. in China there.
Throughout the pandemic, the “lab leak” speculation has been ridiculed by scientists as an unfounded conspiracy theory, promoted by President Donald Trump in an attempt to divert attention from his massive pandemic response. administration.
Far from dismissing the lab-leak theory, however, President Biden told his spies to see if officials in the previous administration, whose work some of his own suspects helped were called bias and overreach, the lab may have been properly questioned and a thorough investigation conducted. The White House was recently told that a large amount of information remains to be examined that could shed light on the question, agreed by a senior administration official who, like others, spoke about the condition of anonymity to be discussed. the researches.
Biden shocked security and health experts on Wednesday when he announced that even one “element” of the intelligence community “relied more” on a lab accident as the source of the outbreak, as opposed to the natural transmission of the virus. from an animal to a human.
“Jaw-dropping,” one of the Trump-time officials involved in finding the origin of covid-19 said about what Biden and the chief’s order that intelligence agencies “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that can lead us to a definite conclusion ”about the origin of the pandemic. Report it back in 90 days.
National security officials in the Trump administration are studying classified intelligence data, scientific papers and even popular magazine articles that have been tested to determine if there is water retention in the lab-leak speculation. They did not find a smoking gun, but they heard their gathered information prompting an investigation, said several people involved in the effort.
The location of the Wuhan lab in the same city as the outbreak for many is the first point of suspicion. But even more alarming is the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak.
Chinese officials seem to be more interested in blocking investigations than helping them, former officials said. They moved to silence doctors and reporters from reporting the spread of the virus, which appeared to first appear to patients at a Wuhan hospital in December 2019.
Around the world, security and health officials began speculating about the origin of the virus soon after it emerged, a former official said, adding that there was a deep disappointment that the Chinese government had not yet arrived. with information and not immediately allowed international investigators in the country.
Evidence that the virus may have come from the Wuhan lab that it is significant, was raised by earlier officials. Their default hypothesis, one they added, shared by most scientists, is that pandemia started in nature.
But as they read published reports about the variety of research conducted in the lab, their concerns skyrocketed. Some experiments have shown that they are designed to be the most contagious viruses and potentially deadly to humans. Such experiments are often conducted to develop more effective vaccines and treatments.
The institution is on the radar of some health and national security officials, the two senior officials said, because there are questions about safety standards and some research on it. These officials expressed frustration that there was no better funding for the intelligence community to gather more information on lab activities.
U.S. officials feel experts should consider the possibility that the lab is doing risky research that could have triggered an outbreak.
Trump agreed. In April 2020, he first publicly revealed the idea that the virus could be leaked from a lab. At the same time, Trump intensified his anti-China rhetoric, referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus.” The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes followed.
Trump provided no evidence to back up the lab theory. His trade adviser, Peter Navarro, a longtime Chinese hawk, accused the Chinese government of engineering the virus, without providing convincing evidence to support such a large claim.
For some officials privately skeptical of the Wuhan lab, Trump and Navarro’s comments made the lab-leak scenario a fringe conspiracy theory. It has become almost impossible to pique the interest of health experts on an assumption that Trump has become a political weapon, they say.
But in the fall of 2020, the momentum is also gaining momentum. The U.S. intelligence community obtained information that three Wuhan lab workers fell ill in November 2019 with covid -like symptoms, sending them to the hospital. Their symptoms were also similar to seasonal illnesses, including the flu, but they became ill a month before initial cases of the disease were confirmed in Wuhan.
Officials also got information that the Chinese military has been experimenting in the lab for years. That also changes the focus on lab-leak theory.
“The information about sick workers is inspiring,” said David Feith, who at the time was deputy secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific activities.
“Just knowing that there are secret military relationships in the lab doesn’t have to tell you where the covid comes from. But if you have a bunch of diseases and they’re actually covid, that could be your Patient Zero,” Feith said. , which is now an affiliate of the Center for a New American Security.
The new information “begins a much larger data analysis effort” about the beginnings, said David Asher, who was then a senior consultant with the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and working on compliance investigations in China. with international treaties and its nuclear weapons program. Upon completion of that work, Asher, who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, became head of Pompeo’s task force overseeing the origins of covid-19, which the secretary also believed could be from lab.
In the worsening days of the Trump administration, officials sought to disclose information, including some about sick lab workers. On Jan. 15, the State Department released a “Sheet in fact” – reviewed by several agencies including the intelligence community – which said the virus could have spread naturally or from a lab.
It defines three activity categories that point to the latter scenario: the report of sick workers; history of lab research on coronaviruses in bats; and known secrets that the lab has been doing “classifying research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of China’s military since 2017.”
The fact sheet, even if it is short, stands as the most comprehensive public document to date on what the U.S. government knows about a possible lab infiltration.
One of the first officials stressed that the evidence has not changed, but there are many unanswered questions.
“There are a lot of coincidences and things that happen, and the question is, when are there so many coincidences?” another former official said. “One side of the ledger is growing, and the other isn’t.”
While many scientists say the lab-leak theory deserves further investigation, many warn against accepting it enthusiastically as well.
“The only reason this story has any legs is that the media has chosen to dress up the old assumption as new information and claim it as evidence. No. It’s speculation, and all the assumptions that originated remain that. possible, ”said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan.
In fact, it took years to solve the origin of the SARS epidemic.
“A 90-day focus on coming up with a definite answer is good in‘ DC talk ’but is unlikely to come up with a definite answer,” said Chris Meekins, a former Health official and Human Services who is now an analyst at Raymond James, a financial services company. Unless “we have definite intelligence that the U.S. has refused to release so far to protect origins and methods, I’m not sure what will change in the next 90 days to change their mind.”