U.S. Intelligence Community Assesses Beginnings Of COVID-19
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Where and how did the coronavirus first emerge? So many people have an interest in that question. It's of interest to China, which has sometimes deflected blame. It's of interest to critics of China, including the Trump administration, which has tried to fix blame. And now U.S. intelligence agencies are making their assessments.
NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us. Greg, good morning.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the U.S. government saying about the virus and its origins?
MYRE: We saw a distinct change in tone this week. The focus has been on the Wuhan wet market, where they sell fish, wild animals in some cases. And that was seen as the origin. Other narratives were seen as speculative, if not outright conspiracy theories. But in the last few days, there is more talk from the government and in the media about the possibility this might be a naturally occurring virus that leaked from a lab in Wuhan. And perhaps the most direct explicit statement came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking here on Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
MIKE POMPEO: What we do know is we know that this virus originated in Wuhan, China. We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was. There's still lots to learn. You should know that the United States government is working diligently to figure this out.
INSKEEP: OK. So Secretary Pompeo mentions a laboratory, does not explicitly say he thinks the virus came from there. Do U.S. officials have much evidence at this point?
MYRE: No, they haven't reached a conclusion. And I've been asking around in the intelligence community and among military officials. They've been a little bit more cautious than what we just heard. And the word that keeps cropping up is inconclusive. The intelligence community hasn't trusted the Chinese explanations, and it sees their ongoing behavior as suspicious. But they're not prepared to make a final assessment. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, he addressed this question at the Pentagon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK MILLEY: It should be no surprise to you that we've taken a keen interest in that. And we've had a lot of intelligence take a hard 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.
MYRE: So the keyword here is natural, which has two meanings. It could mean that it turned up organically in the wet market. It could also mean that it was a naturally occurring virus that was being studied at this lab and accidentally infected a worker, who then spread it outside the lab. And a third point would be that the U.S. does not have evidence that this was a man-made bioweapon.
INSKEEP: OK. So how is China responding to all this talk?
MYRE: Well, they're pushing back. A top scientist at the virology lab has vigorously denied that the lab was involved at all. And other Chinese scientists say there were early cases at the Wuhan market, as we all know. But they say it's far from clear that that was the place where the virus originated. They even say it might not have come from China at all. Our NPR colleague, Emily Feng, has been in Wuhan and says that it's quite common to hear Chinese people blaming the U.S. as the source of the virus.
INSKEEP: Where would Chinese people get that idea?
MYRE: Well, government and media reports point to the Military World Games, which were held in Wuhan last October - the U.S. and a contingent of about 170 troops, just one of more than 100 countries. But some Chinese say the U.S. spread the virus then. And with this advanced knowledge, it allowed the U.S. to respond so quickly. So obviously, that's an explanation that's not flying in this country.
INSKEEP: What are the implications if the origin was firmly traced to a Chinese lab as opposed to somewhere else?
MYRE: Well, lots of potential ramifications - China has undertaken this huge effort to reshape the narrative, presenting itself as overcoming the virus, restarting the economy despite the bad numbers we've heard today, selling protective gear around the world. This effort would be undercut if it turns out China was engaged in a huge cover-up. And it could further damage the already strained U.S.-China relations.
INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.