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Top U.S. Intelligence Agency Rules Out The Theory That The Coronavirus Is Manmade


President Trump said this evening that he has seen evidence that the coronavirus came from a lab in China. This would be a major development, but the president declined to give any details in the exchange with a reporter.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?


SHAPIRO: For more on what this means, we are joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: So the president made this statement without elaborating, contradicting other accounts. Can you put his comment into context for us?

MYRE: Right, so the origin of the virus has been a mystery, and China says it doesn't know precisely where it came from, other than it broke out in Wuhan, China. Now, most scientists think it likely spread naturally from an animal to a person. That's happened in previous cases. Now, in recent weeks, the Trump administration has been increasingly suggesting that it might have been a lab accident. And the president today went further than anyone else, so China has vigorously denied it was a lab accident. And this is sure to increase friction with China.

SHAPIRO: Earlier today, the top U.S. intelligence agency issued a statement about its own investigation into the origins, but it sounds like that statement does not square with what the president said tonight.

MYRE: No, it really doesn't. Now, it was rare for the Office for the Director of National Intelligence to issue a statement, and they didn't explain why they were doing it. But it did say that they agreed with the scientific consensus that says, quote, "the virus was not manmade or genetically modified." So they're ruling out a bioweapon. And they went on to say that they're still investigating, and they haven't reached any conclusions, which seems somewhat at odds with what the president said.

SHAPIRO: And since it is the top U.S. intelligence agency, if there was intelligence saying it came from a lab, they would know. It's also a science question. What are scientists saying about it?

MYRE: Right, so most scientists think it did spread naturally from an animal to a person. Now, our colleague Geoff Brumfiel has done reporting on this, spoken to a number of scientists. And they see the lab accident theory as very, very unlikely. This lab that's involved - the Wuhan Institute of Virology - is considered a very solid lab. The U.S. has provided money and worked with them on safety procedures. It's a well-known lab that takes lots of protective steps, so this is why they think this is really not the case. But China hasn't been forthcoming. It's been very secretive. It didn't allow a U.S. team to go there early on in January. It was another month until February that a WHO - World Health Organization - team was allowed in. This Chinese behavior has really fueled suspicions.

SHAPIRO: So this divide between President Trump and his intelligence agencies comes as former intelligence officials accuse the Trump administration of trying to politicize intelligence. What are these critics saying?

MYRE: A number of senior former intelligence officials have been suggesting that this administration is trying to politicize the intelligence. There was an op-ed this week by three former senior officials at the CIA, including Mike Morell. And they said that the president has repeatedly pressured the intelligence community to present analytical judgments that are consistent with his views. And they cited things like the Russia investigation, and they warned that they fear something like that could happen in this coronavirus investigation as well. We've seen in the past few weeks Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some of his deputies begin hinting at this lab accident; worth noting that the intelligence community and the military have been very, very cautious. But Trump's statement again raises this issue of whether the administration is trying to shape a narrative, even without having evidence.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre.

Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure, Ari. 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.