A cautious, but striking conclusion from the US energy ministry: the corona virus does not come from an animal market, but was accidentally created in a lab. Scientists have their doubts.
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What is the conclusion of the Americans?
The coronavirus could have been caused by human error in a laboratory, the US Department of Energy said in an updated report yesterday. It is a striking theory, because many scientists argue that corona has been transmitted from animals to humans: more specifically, from bats to visitors to the Huanan animal market in Wuhan.
Yet the ministry did not immediately come up with piles of evidence: that would be on the shelf, but is highly secret, according to the ministry. The White House and some members of Congress would have the evidence in their possession.
The energy ministry is not the first to draw this controversial conclusion: the FBI has previously stated ‘with moderate confidence’ that the origin of the virus lies in a laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Why the suspicion of a leak?
The Americans believe that China does not provide enough insight into the origin of the virus. When Chinese scientists arrived at the Huanan market for research, the police had already closed the market. Live animals were quickly removed.
Information is missing, say the Americans. This makes the lab theory not only a scientific, but also a political issue, mainly instigated by the Republican Party. In October, members published an analysis of the origins of the pandemic, blaming the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That lab was said to have “systematic problems with their biosecurity”, but definitive evidence for this was not forthcoming.
The lab suggestion has now taken on a life of its own. A February 26 poll found 67 percent of Republicans believe in the lab theory, compared to 32 percent of Democrats. The theory has also been picked up by conspiracy theorists, who believe there is secret intent behind the leak.
What is the reaction of scientists?
In short, it is full of doubt. American representatives labeled the information as ‘low confidence’, insufficient to draw large-scale conclusions. “There are different opinions in the intelligence community,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN Sunday. “Some drew conclusions on one side, some on the other.”
Virologist Marion Koopmans also has her doubts. The scientist himself investigated the origin of the virus in Wuhan in early 2021, and visited the controversial Wuhan lab. “Our conclusion then: that the transmission of the virus from animals to humans was most likely,” she says.
The American warning does not change that for the time being. “The problem with this news is the secrecy of the US Department,” says Koopmans. “We have always said: if new evidence comes, we have to look again to see if our assessment changes. But despite calls to do so, nothing has been shared with the World Health Organization. Apparently the evidence is not strong, at least that is my conclusion.”
How does China react?
Beijing is angry. Chinese spokesman Mao Ning called on the US to stop “taunting China” and “politicizing the origins of corona” on Monday. China has long resisted the lab theory, calling it a theory without a scientific basis for years.
The relationship between the US and China has cooled considerably since President Joe Biden imposed strict export restrictions for high-tech chip technology to China, which also apply to the Eindhoven company ASML. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of spying with a balloon over US airspace earlier this month, the relationship only became more icy.
To what extent is China transparent?
Certainly, China does not share everything, says Koopmans. “But US criticism that China is not sharing enough is an old story,” the virologist notes. “That was already said when our report was published, while it contained a lot of new data. Those accusations from the US have not become a step more concrete two years later, she thinks. “Moreover, the US does not share its data, so both sides are there are problems with transparency.”
The accusation of the US Department therefore does not lead to new discussions in its lab or scientific network, says Koopmans. “Except: if they show something new, then maybe we can move on.”