WASHINGTON -- China is pushing back against President Donald Trump and some of his officials, who’ve flirted in recent days with an outlier theory that the coronavirus was set loose by a Chinese lab that let it escape.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Friday accused the U.S. administration of attempting to shift the focus from its own missteps in dealing with the pandemic by talking up a theory that it was started by a pathogen from a laboratory in Wuhan, the city where the global outbreak began.
But that spokesman, Zhao Lijian, has demonstrated that China, too, is not above sowing confusion in the face of the pandemic. He tweeted in March the falsehood that the virus might have come from the U.S. Army.
A scientific consensus is still evolving, but the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.
Without the weight of evidence, Trump and some administration officials are trying to blame China for sickness and death from COVID-19 in the United States.
“More and more, we’re hearing the story,” Trump says. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adds, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers — that China hasn’t shared the answers — I think is very, very telling.”
On Friday, Pompeo said the U.S. is pressing China to let outside experts into the lab “so that we can determine precisely where this virus began.”
Asked on Fox Business Network about whether China might have manipulated the virus for sinister purposes, he said, “It is completely appropriate that the world ask the right questions,” then diverted to another subject.
Trump officials have largely been steering clear of baseless conspiracy theories in circulation that the virus was intentionally set loose by China, even as some give weight to the unsubstantiated idea the virus mistakenly spread from a negligent lab in Wuhan.
Experts overwhelmingly say analysis of the new coronavirus’s genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans, as some commentators have suggested.
Nor is it likely that the virus emerged from a negligent laboratory in Wuhan, they say. “I would put it on a list of 1,000 different scenarios,” said Nathan Grubaugh of Yale University, who studies the epidemiology of microbial disease.
Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats.
Even so, Pompeo and others are pointing fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the SARS virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people.
“We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was,” Pompeo said. The institute has an address 8 miles, or 13 kilometers, from the market.
U.S. officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but stressed there's no evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later.
The episode shows that both world powers — the country where the virus originally spread and the country with the most sickness and deaths from it — are willing to use shaky theories and propaganda to divert attention from problems in their pandemic response.
At a briefing Friday, Zhao asserted that suspicions about the lab were generated by the U.S. “simply to confuse the public, divert attention and shirk responsibility.” He added: “We have said many times that tracing of the virus’s origin is a serious scientific issue and requires scientific and professional assessment.”
Yet on March 12, he tweeted: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, said in late March that China was heavily pushing the fabrication that the virus came from the U.S., especially to its online audiences in Africa. China dropped the claim late that month because people weren't buying it.
China and the U.S. both wasted crucial time responding to the outbreak.
More than 3,000 people had been infected before China’s government told the public what it had concluded six days earlier — that a pandemic was probably coming.
Beijing muffled early warnings, such that the Chinese were assured the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission was low even as infected people entered hospitals across the country and the first case outside China was found, in Thailand.
The United States, also late to take the threat seriously, has lagged a number of other countries in the thick of the pandemic when it comes to its response.
Trump failed to live up to his early promises to have ample testing, a key factor in containing disease. The U.S. still struggles to supply hospitals, front-line workers and patients with necessities in a climate of confusion spilling into chaos. More than 670,000 people in the U.S. have been sickened with COVID-19, not counting large numbers whose illnesses are not being registered, and more than 33,000 have died, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Against that backdrop, the pressure for scapegoats is strong.
After weeks of elaborate praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s performance in the pandemic, Trump has turned to blaming China and halting U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization, accusing it of parroting misinformation from Beijing.
In the U.S., claims that the virus was created in or released from a Chinese lab emerged just weeks after the outbreak began and quickly spread from fringe internet sites to the wider public.
The reality is more mundane, said Dr. Gregory Poland, head of vaccine research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “This virus is a typical bat coronavirus that has developed the capacity to infect other mammals, and bats are mammals, too,” he said. “What’s becoming evident is that the natural origin of this fits with the transmission dynamics and biology of it all.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that comments on Fox Business Network were by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not Vice President Mike Pence.
Associated Press writers Dake Kang in Beijing, Matthew Lee in Washington, David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, Amanda Seitz in Chicago and Malcolm Ritter and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed.