COVID-19 evolved naturally, but laboratory leak possible

Biological weapon? Nope. Biological accident? MaaayyyyybeeeeeAfter being tasked by Donald Trump to investigate the origins of COVID-19 and the response from China and the World Health Organization, DNI Richard Grenell reported on the first part of that mandate. The novel coronavirus responsible for a pandemic “was not manmade or genetically modified,” but the possibility of a lab accident triggering the outbreak remains open:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed on-record for the first time Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community is investigating whether the coronavirus outbreak, which has wreaked havoc across the globe, started as the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

“The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China. The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” a statement from the office of acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell said.

“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security. The IC 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,” the statement said.

The “biological weapon” theory always did have more holes in it than a truckload of Swiss cheese. In the first place, China wouldn’t have detonated it in Wuhan near two of its research facilities, which would make it obvious, nor anywhere in China at all. They would have dropped it someplace else. Second, the obvious reaction to such an outbreak would have been economic isolation of precisely the kind that Trump was imposing through his trade war, which suddenly looks even wiser than it did before.

In fact, the outbreak has disastrous long-term implications for China that far outweigh any potential benefits from a bioweapon. The US had already taken a heightened interest in pulling back supply chains from China. That has now become a stampede, with Congress proposing subsidizing the relocation of manufacturing back to the US, especially on critical supplies. China has been globalization’s biggest beneficiary, both economically and technologically through its systematic theft of intellectual property in those chains. That has dried up, perhaps permanently.

The big news here is that the virus doesn’t appear to be a bioweapon that was accidentally released, either. Epidemiologists had reached that conclusion by studying the virus and its leap from bats to humans; they had warned for years that such a leap was not just possible but probable, given the conditions in China surrounding their “wet markets” and animal-handling protocols. It’s also not the first coronavirus to make that leap over the last few decades in that manner — it’s just the worst.

That’s not to say that it didn’t escape from a laboratory. The ODNI statement emphasizes that there is insufficient evidence in either direction, which means that anything’s possible. That has raised some eyebrows today, Politico reports:

Current and former national security officials said they were surprised by the release, and suggested it could be a sign that the intelligence community feels it is being pulled into a political battle. The administration has been pressuring analysts, particularly at the CIA, to search for evidence that the virus came from a lab and that the World Health Organization helped China cover it up, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

ODNI’s statement does not rule out that possibility — but it emphasizes the fundamental role of the spy agencies: to collect and analyze information, not to search for a particular conclusion. There is currently no evidence to support the theory that it came from a lab, said people briefed on the intelligence, but there is also no intelligence that would allow the agencies to explicitly rule out the possibility.

Maybe this is an attempt to push away from Trump’s declaration earlier this week, but there’s a simpler explanation for this statement. The bioweapon hypothesis has gained considerable traction, and the scientists pushing back against it have been received skeptically. Given Trump’s clear intent to find ways to humiliate China over the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a statement against obvious interests for the ODNI. In an extraordinary circumstance as this pandemic has created, transparency is the best choice to deal with conspiracy theorists.

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