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Argument

Key U.S. Allies Skeptical of Trump’s Coronavirus Lab Leak Claims

Five Eyes members and intelligence analysts push back against attempts to pin the virus on Chinese biosafety mistakes.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps away from the podium following a news conference at the State Department in Washington on April 29.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps away from the podium following a news conference at the State Department in Washington on April 29. Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Despite claims from the Trump administration of a growing consensus that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese government lab, three members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership and sources within the U.S. national security community are throwing cold water on the theory.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada have pointedly not backed up America’s apparent surety that the novel coronavirus was either deliberately or accidentally leaked from a Chinese lab. All three countries are members of the Five Eyes, the postwar espionage pact designed to share intelligence between like-minded governments, along with New Zealand.

While there is ample evidence that Chinese government officials covered up aspects of the scope and severity of COVID-19 early on, Ottawa, Canberra, and London have all said investigations need to continue regarding the source of the virus.

Fox News has reported in recent weeks of an emerging confidence in the United States that the coronavirus accidentally emerged from a biosecurity lab in Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the outbreak. In the aftermath, the news outlet reported, Beijing worked to cover up the mishap by blaming a nearby wet market.

Asked directly whether he has seen evidence supporting the theory that the virus originated from the level 4 biosecurity lab in Wuhan, U.S. President Donald Trump said simply: “Yes, I have.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, went on ABC’s This Week to promote the theory. “There is enormous evidence that this is where it began,” he said.

On Sunday, when Foreign Policy asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about those assessments, he said it was “still too early to draw firm conclusions.”

While he would not comment as to whether Canadian intelligence agencies were investigating the claim, he did say it was incumbent on the Five Eyes “to find answers to the many questions that people are asking.”

Asked by Foreign Policy, Downing Street pointed to a similar statement by a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told reporters on Friday: “Clearly there are questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of the virus,” adding that: “This will need to be done with all our international partners, including China.”

Australian officials were a bit more blunt, telling the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph that they believe the virus began, as Beijing has said, in a wet market in Wuhan. They put the likelihood that it leaked from the lab at just 5 percent.

The Telegraph reported this weekend on a leaked 15-page research document said to be written by Western intelligence agencies. The document lends credence to the accusations that China deliberately misled the world on the prevalence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus and disappeared doctors and scientists to complete the cover-up.

But everything published by the Telegraph consists of open-source intelligence, meaning it is readily available online.

The only specifics about the origin of the virus in the dossier, as reported by the Telegraph, point to a study from the South China University of Technology that concluded that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan lab.

That two-page paper, which was not peer-reviewed and which was pulled by ResearchGate shortly after it was released in February, offers no firm scientific evidence but nevertheless concludes “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” One of the authors later repudiated his initial findings in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Contrary to some suggestions, the lab is tasked with curing infectious diseases, not creating them—work encouraged in the past by the United States itself.

Even though two of the five members of the Five Eyes partnership are refusing to endorse Washington’s theory, Fox News correspondent John Roberts reported Saturday that a senior intelligence source said a majority of America’s 17 intelligence agencies believe the virus leaked from the lab by mistake.

It is unclear which of those 17 agencies agreed with the assessment—the broader intelligence community includes divisions of the U.S. Coast Guard and Energy Department. Sources in the U.S. intelligence community from three separate agencies who deal closely with China told Foreign Policy that the picture of agreement was misleading. “There is no consensus on this, and there isn’t enough information to draw one,” one experienced China analyst said.

“Really only one or two agencies have the ability to make a good assessment of this,” said Jessica Davis, a former senior strategy analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service who is now the president of Insight Threat Intelligence, a private intelligence firm that works with governments.

Davis said that based on the open-source intelligence available, “we’re not anywhere near a conclusion about where this thing originated.” The U.S. intelligence official, speaking to Fox News, seemed to recognize that, saying there was no “smoking gun.”

The New York Times has reported that the Trump administration has pressured intelligence agencies to sign on to the theory of the lab accident.

Despite the claim of a consensus, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement last Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” That office iterated that it was investigating “if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan” but did not say that a determination had been made.

Davis said that by pumping up this theory in the media, the Trump administration appears to be trying to “draw the Five Eyes into it.”

“I don’t envy my Canadian former colleagues,” Davis said. To come out and contradict the White House position is “bad politics” for the other Five Eyes countries, she said. “But then to let it stand is also unpalatable because then you’re being used as a tool of American politicization.”

A request for comment to the office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also responsible for her country’s intelligence and security services, went unanswered.

There is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that an accidental leak from the lab was, at least, possible. The Washington Post has reported on leaked cables from U.S. officials highlighting serious security and protocol lapses at the Wuhan lab, which is China’s only level 4 facility—meaning it is cleared to handle the most dangerous pathogens.

Even if the virus did emerge from the lab, it is highly likely to be a natural virus, rather than a deliberately engineered one. The journal Nature Medicine published a paper from researchers in the United States, U.K., and Australia in mid-March, concluding: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

James Palmer provided additional reporting for this story. 

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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