"[U.S.] officials are seriously pursuing the possibility that a natural sample of the virus escaped a laboratory."
The question was dismissed as a conspiracy theory in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
But now, some intelligence experts admit they are seriously looking into the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic might have been touched off by an accident at a research facility in China, various news outlets report.
"It's definitely a real possibility being bandied about at the high levels of the administration," says one of those quoted experts.
Business Insider also reports that intelligence services for the British government are reportedly considering the same possibility.
Maybe, but maybe not.
We just don't know yet.
"After extensive research, scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere have determined that the new strain of the coronavirus discovered in China in December is, as Chinese officials have maintained, of natural origin, but they are taking seriously that its route to human infection may have started in a lab in Wuhan," writes Yahoo News' Jenna McLaughlin:
"It's absolutely being looked at very closely at the highest levels," said one intelligence source with knowledge of the investigations. One reason for the suspicion is the lack of information coming from China. Beijing's quick denials of involvement, and the decision to immediately identify the Wuhan Seafood Market as the source, raised eyebrows among some U.S. intelligence officials.
"I find it very funny that China very quickly blamed the market," said one recently retired intelligence official.
The Chinese government did not respond to multiple requests for comment made through its foreign ministry and its embassy in the U.S.
In fact, some of the very first cases of COVID-19 were not linked to the market, and there are a number of important research institutions in Wuhan where infectious diseases are studied. Those include the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, the first publicly acknowledged lab with the highest biosafety standards; the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to one of the world's top research groups on bat coronaviruses, where scientists have studied thousands of samples.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collaborates with researchers and institutions around the world, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a key site for the Global Virome Project, a global initiative focused on preventing the next pandemic by researching DNA and RNA of viruses in animals that could potentially infect humans. While that group does not typically work with intact virus samples, according to David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, "it is possible" that the researchers could have collected a virus sample from a bat and been researching it within the lab.
Exclusive: State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses https://t.co/kgwc21YwBP
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) April 14, 2020
In 2018, U.S. State Dept. science advisors warned China did not have enough properly trained personnel for their new high-security lab working with bat coronaviruses. Cable rec'd more U.S. assistance, which never came. #COVID19 https://t.co/CNDxNrWS4I
— Brian Vastag (@brianvastag) April 14, 2020
"Sars-like #coronavirus from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause Sars-like diseases..continued surveillance critical..Wuhan lab in China was taking unnecessary risks."
This is a dispatch by US Embassy in 2018. Global pandemic follows in 2020.https://t.co/vx71CS3hme
— Tarun Shukla (@shukla_tarun) April 14, 2020
"I would just say, at this point, it's inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural [origins]" per @thejointstaff's Gen Milley on intel assessments of reports that #COVID19 #coronavirus came from a lab in #China
"But, we don't know for certain"
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) April 14, 2020
— John Nosta (@JohnNosta) April 14, 2020