U.S. still hasn't ruled out lab accident origin for Covid because China hasn't been transparent

WASHINGTON – Despite a World Health Organization finding that the Covid-19 outbreak in China most likely infected people first through a livestock farmer, the United States is still not ruling out the possibility of a laboratory accident as officials continue to seek information about the initial treatment of the Chinese government outbreak was reported by American and Western officials to NBC News.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told NBC News the agency stood by a public statement it released in April that said American intelligence “will continue to investigate emerging information and intelligence to see if.” the outbreak started through contact with infected animals or when it was the result of an accident in a laboratory in Wuhan. “

Watch Keir Simmons on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight for more of the story.

World Health Organization (WHO) members tasked with investigating the causes of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic leave an exhibition on how China is fighting the coronavirus on January 30, 2021 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China .Thomas Peter / Reuters

US officials have not released any evidence suggesting a laboratory accident, and most of the scientists who have investigated the matter said that such a scenario is unlikely. But Biden government officials in recent days have accused China of a lack of transparency about the origins of the virus. And they have criticized how the WHO presented the first results of a visit to Wuhan last week, where the virus is believed to have occurred.

After visiting three laboratories in Wuhan last week, WHO investigators said they had found no evidence that a laboratory accident could have caused the outbreak. A WHO researcher told reporters at a news conference that the organization was ceasing any further investigation into the theory.

However, the WHO Director General appeared to be going back on that final statement a few days later, saying that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study”.

A Western intelligence official who has seen classified material told NBC News that the US has extensive information that has not been made public about actions the Chinese government has taken in connection with the Wuhan laboratory and other issues to investigate the origins of Covid-19 disguise and hide its early effects. A former US official who also saw Intelligence agreed that it was significant, if inconclusive.

Both sources said the material, which they did not detail, did not constitute evidence of a laboratory accident. However, they said it had raised enough evidence that analysts couldn’t rule out the laboratory scenario. US intelligence officials declined to comment.

The intelligence agency, which contains documents, paints a picture of a Chinese government initially trying to hide the burgeoning pandemic from the outside world.

The P4 laboratory on the left at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province on April 17, 2020.Hector Retamal / AFP – Getty Images File

“There is no doubt that China, especially when it first hit Covid-19, is still well behind the mark today when it comes to providing the international community with the necessary information,” said Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken opposite Andrea Mitchell of NBC Month. “All of that – this lack of transparency, this lack of willingness is a profound problem that continues.”

The laboratory theory

The so-called laboratory theory refers to a hypothesis that the Covid outbreak in Wuhan was due to an accidental discharge from one of the laboratories working with coronavirus in that city – possibly improper disposal of laboratory waste or an infected employee at work and then infected others.

US intelligence agencies and scientists say they have ruled out Covid-19 being human-made or deliberately released. Laboratory theory is based on the accidental release of a virus that researchers found in nature and used for investigation.

Scientists say that at first glance, a scenario is unlikely because animal-to-human virus transmission is frequent, while laboratory accidents are relatively rare. Key scientists studying viruses in Wuhan say they haven’t studied the Covid-19 virus, which had not been documented in nature before the outbreak.

Intelligence officials counter that a key laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, removed a database of 22,000 virus samples from the public for security reasons and did not allow a detailed look at the laboratory’s notes or other records.

They say it is suspicious that the virus outbreak occurred in Wuhan, a center of virus research in China, while the bats, which commonly carry coronaviruses, are usually found in caves a thousand miles from that city.

Dominic Dwyer, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the causes of coronavirus disease, is walking at her hotel in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on February 6, 2021.Aly Song / Reuters file

They note that scientists have also not found a host animal that could have transmitted the virus to humans after a year of searching.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology should “provide all records of bat samples, viruses and sequences with verified origins of the information and eventually disclose them to everyone,” the editorial said. “The origin of the pandemic is of interest to everyone in the world.”

WHO researchers recognized last week that the “wet” or live animal market in Wuhan, which was originally viewed as the likely source of the outbreak, may not be the whole story, as early cases have been identified in people unrelated to the market .

The WHO team consisted of international and Chinese scientists. They say their full report will be published within weeks.

A member of the team, Australian microbiologist and infectious disease expert Dominic Dwyer, told NBC News that the scientists had not received all of the data they requested from the Chinese government and that team members were wondering about various aspects of what they were doing saw and heard, disagreed.

“There were tense moments and disagreements and, you know, arguments about what things meant and so on, between the two sides,” Dwyer said. “And part of that is just because the data isn’t strong enough to make one great conclusion.”

According to Dwyer, in December the team received “aggregated data” as opposed to detailed, line-by-line case information for the 174 known Covid cases from Wuhan in December.

Case information would enable researchers to “go up to someone who has had this disease and say, OK, do you know how old are you? Do you know what kind of work you do? Who is in your family? What do you do You for your hobbies? You know, you go to the market? What kind of market do you go to, you know how is your general health, like all these things, in order to understand where a person has been, and where they are something could be exposed. “

Several members of the WHO team told NBC News that they were provided only 13 DNA sequences from the 174 cases. Of these, five had small genomic differences, suggesting a larger pool of viruses, Dwyer said, although the sample was so small that it was difficult to draw conclusions.

“The actual infections are likely much higher than the 174,” said Dwyer.

WHO investigators hired Chinese researchers to interview the wider community, he added.

According to Dwyer, the Chinese researchers examined the cases of 76,000 people with fever or pneumonia from October 1 to December 31, 2019 and found 92 people with Covid-like symptoms. Of these, they tested 67 people, Dwyer said, and found no Covid-19 antibodies.

U.S. still hasn't ruled out lab accident origin for Covid because China hasn't been transparent 1

These tests were conducted in January 2021, more than a year after the potential exposure. Scientists do not yet know how long Covid-19 antibodies will remain in the body after infection.

Pompeo and the laboratory theory

The Trump administration, and in particular then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, repeatedly said there was significant evidence to support the laboratory theory.

On January 15, five days before the Trump administration ended, the State Department issued a “data sheet“a series of allegations about the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Including: “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers within the EIG became ill in the fall of 2019, prior to the first identified case of the outbreak, exhibiting symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses, with credibility.” the public assertion of lead WIV researcher Shi Zhengli that WIV staff and students were not infected by SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses. “

The fact sheet added, “Although the EIG presents itself as a civilian institution, the United States has found that EI has partnered with the Chinese military on publications and secret projects. The EIG has been commissioned by the Chinese military to conduct classified research including laboratory animal testing since at least 2017. “

U.S. still hasn't ruled out lab accident origin for Covid because China hasn't been transparent 2

A former official familiar with the intelligence on which Pompeo’s testimony was based said it was less than solid and some officials were surprised that the secretary aired it publicly. Pompeo did not respond to his spokesman’s requests for comment.

Dwyer told NBC News that the WHO team inquired about the tests carried out by researchers in the WIV lab and learned that standard tests were being performed on all staff in April 2019 and then in 2020. They were told that these tests were negative. However, it is not clear when the tests were run for 2020, which in turn raises questions about whether coronavirus would be detected. The head of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Shi, wrote on July 31, nine months after October 2019, that she “recently” tested all WIV employees and that they were negative.

“I think the jury is still not there,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week about the origins of Covid-19. “It is clear that the Chinese, at least so far, have not offered the necessary transparency that we need.”

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