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U.S. Intelligence Community Is Still Investigating The Origins Of The Coronavirus


The Trump administration keeps raising the, so far, unproven theory that the coronavirus originally escaped from a Chinese lab in the city of Wuhan. Here's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week."


MIKE POMPEO: I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.

KELLY: But no evidence significant or otherwise has been made public, and the intelligence community says it is still investigating and has not reached any conclusions. For more, we are joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you have been following this closely. Lay out the case that the Trump administration is making here.

MYRE: So the lab theory is coming mostly from President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo. Multiple times over the past few weeks, they've said this in some form, but they haven't produced evidence. And let's be clear about what they are and aren't saying. They are not saying that this was created in a lab as a bioweapon. That's been ruled out by the intelligence agency and - intelligence agencies and scientists. But the administration is suggesting this could be a naturally occurring virus that was under study at this lab - the Wuhan Institute of Virology - and somehow released accidentally. It's a modern state-of-the-art lab. U.S. scientists have worked with the staff. They generally speak highly of it. However, this lab does study bats and the coronaviruses they carry, so it's a natural place to investigate. But so far, we don't have any evidence making that link.

KELLY: And meanwhile, the intelligence community is saying what exactly? - because it's a little different.

MYRE: Yes, you're absolutely right. So the intelligence community has presented a very consistent message. They're saying, we know it comes from China. We're still investigating the origins, and we've reached no conclusions yet. We've been hearing this privately for weeks, and it was formalized in a statement from the office of the director of national intelligence last Thursday.

Now, our colleague Geoff Brumfiel has spoken with many scientists. And in their view, the market - this - the theory that it came from this wet market or seafood market is much more probable. It's just exponentially more farmers and market workers and shoppers who come into contact with livestock or wildlife compared to a very small number who are in the lab and taking precautions.

The IC says - the intelligence community says they may never know the origins. There - they don't know that the Chinese know. And they're also stressing that their forte is politics, like what the Chinese government might be doing, rather than - the details of the science would be more in the bailiwick of the Centers for Disease Control, for example.

KELLY: So the investigation is ongoing. The intelligence community says, actually, we may never know exactly the origin of this virus. I mean, meanwhile, what does all this say about U.S.-China relations?

MYRE: Well, they've been getting worse and - had a little insight this morning; an interesting event. Matthew Pottinger - he's the deputy national security adviser. He's also a former journalist who worked in China in the early 2000s. He spoke on a virtual panel this morning - went on for more than 20 minutes in fluent Mandarin in a message that was clearly directed to the Chinese people. He praised the brave Chinese doctor, Dr. Li, who spoke out when this illness first appeared and tried to warn people and then was detained by police and then, ultimately, died of the virus in February. And after Pottinger spoke, he answered some questions, including one about whether the U.S. was likely to take economic action against China. Let's have a listen.


MATTHEW POTTINGER: The U.S. isn't looking at punitive measures here. What President Trump is looking at doing is continuing with the policy that he ran on, a policy that he's implemented, which is to have a reciprocal and fair relationship with China.

MYRE: So he didn't mention the lab theory at all and sort of suggested that we're not looking at harsh action, at this point, against China.

KELLY: Worth noting, Greg; this is just the latest example of the president and his intelligence agencies seeming to be not on exactly the same page. Where does that go next?

MYRE: Well, we could get a taste tomorrow. The Senate Intelligence Committee takes up the nominations of John Ratcliffe. He's the Texas congressman nominated to be the director of national intelligence. President Trump...

KELLY: Right.

MYRE: ...Nominated him or came close to nominating him last July.

KELLY: But it got shot down. I remember that.

MYRE: But it was sort of quickly shot down.

KELLY: Yes, indeed.

MYRE: That's right.

KELLY: So we will see what happens this week.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: That's right.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.