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US said probing possibility that virus came from Chinese laboratory

Intelligence officials tell CNN they are looking into theory virus was accidentally released by infected technician, though they stress it is far from substantiated

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the coronavirus is believed to have initially spread, seen January 21, 2020.  (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the coronavirus is believed to have initially spread, seen January 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

US intelligence officials are investigating the theory that the novel coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan and was accidentally released to the public, CNN reported Thursday, citing multiple sources involved, though it stressed that the notion was far from substantiated.

The report added that other sources had told CNN that US intelligence hasn’t been able to corroborate the theory but is trying to “discern whether someone was infected in the lab through an accident or poor handling of materials and may have then infected others.”

Earlier this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, said American intelligence had examined the possibility that the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory, but that it seemed to be of “natural” origin.

Meanwhile Fox News said Wednesday that the virus “likely originated” in a Wuhan laboratory, citing sources who had been briefed on the matter. The report stated that the virus was not developed as a bioweapon, “but as part of China’s effort to demonstrate that its efforts to identify and combat viruses are equal to or greater than the capabilities of the United States.”

The sources told Fox that while the coronavirus was a naturally occurring virus transmitted from bats to humans, “patient zero” worked at the laboratory, then went to the wet market in Wuhan, where the virus began to spread into the population.

There has been no outside corroboration of the Fox report.

Asked by Fox about the report at his press briefing at the White House on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said “we’re hearing the story,” adding that “we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.”

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Gen. Mark Milley’s remarks came after the Washington Post reported that the US State Department in 2018 expressed concerns about a laboratory in the city of Wuhan, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that was performing coronavirus studies with bats.

“There’s a lot of rumor and speculation in a wide variety of media, blog sites, etc,” Milley said during a press briefing at the Pentagon. “It should be no surprise to you that we’ve taken a keen interest in that, and we’ve had a lot of intelligence look at that. 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.”

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, March 10, 2020. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP)

According to the Washington Post, US diplomats in China made multiple visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 and sent cables to the State Department warning of insufficient safety measures in place there.

One of the cables warned the laboratory’s research on bat coronaviruses and their potential to be transmitted to humans posed a threat of a new SARS-style pandemic.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the report quoted the January 2018 cable as saying.

The cable also said: “From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

At the White House briefing, asked by Fox whether he had ever spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the lack of safety protocols that had been recorded to the State Department from the embassy in Beijing about the Wuhan laboratory, Trump replied: “I don’t want to discuss what I talked to him about the laboratory. I just don’t want to discuss it. It’s just inappropriate right now.”

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