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Trump, aides float outlier theory on origins of coronavirus

President Donald Trump and some of his officials are flirting with an outlier theory that the new coronavirus was set loose on the world by a Chinese lab that let it escape

Posted: Apr 16, 2020 5:05 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and some of his officials are flirting with an outlier theory that the new coronavirus was set loose on the world by a Chinese lab that let it escape. Without the weight of evidence, they’re 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.”

A scientific consensus is still evolving. But experts overwhelmingly say analysis of the new coronavirus’ genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans, as some conspiracy theories have suggested.

Nor is it likely that the virus emerged from a negligent laboratory in China, 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 the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.

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 Wednesday on Fox News. The institute has an address 8 miles, or 13 kilometers, from the market.

U.S. officials say the American Embassy in Beijing did flag concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but stressed there is no evidence that 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 not above floating shaky theories and using propaganda to divert attention from problems in their pandemic response. China previously spread the falsehood that the virus started with Americans.

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.

Chinese leaders tried blaming the U.S., sharing Trump’s habit of dressing up tweets with exclamation marks. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted on March 12. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” China subsequently stopped promoting that fabrication internationally.

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 640,000 people in the U.S. have been sickened with COVID-19, not counting large numbers whose illnesses are not being registered, and more than 31,000 have died.

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, abetted by conspiracy theorists of every stripe.

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.”

Whatever they think about the idea of a laboratory leak, Trump officials have not taken up the far-out theory that China might have created or released the virus through nefarious genetic engineering or ill intent.

“I don’t have much faith that they’re even being truthful with us now,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show. Yet, “a majority of the views right now is that it is natural, it was organic,” he said.

And it’s something of a diversion in a country wrestling with present danger, he seemed to suggest. “Once we get beyond the pandemic we’ll have a chance to look back and really find out what happened.”

___

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 to this report.

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Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1388634

Reported Deaths: 25566
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook55620110461
DuPage923681316
Will769181032
Lake683491014
Kane59419807
Winnebago34106506
Madison30930526
McHenry29182294
St. Clair28316519
Peoria23443342
Champaign21100154
Sangamon19094240
McLean18553187
Tazewell17227305
Rock Island15245329
Kankakee14550217
Kendall1327899
LaSalle12779250
Macon10997211
DeKalb10116121
Vermilion10021142
Adams8677126
Williamson7595134
Whiteside7199174
Boone683677
Ogle620683
Grundy598678
Clinton578991
Coles5770100
Knox5642153
Jackson510065
Henry507870
Livingston489691
Woodford483282
Stephenson481985
Macoupin478288
Effingham476872
Franklin454178
Marion4513117
Jefferson4422122
Monroe438094
Lee419354
Randolph416487
Fulton405159
Logan396964
Morgan393482
Christian383875
Montgomery379474
Bureau378383
Fayette322555
Perry320360
Iroquois313867
McDonough290851
Jersey271652
Douglas260636
Saline260357
Lawrence241127
Shelby232638
Union228141
Crawford214525
Bond208724
Cass203527
Ford188948
Warren184148
Clark183733
Jo Daviess182724
Pike181853
Wayne181053
Hancock180631
Carroll178337
Richland176940
Edgar176740
White170626
Washington164825
Moultrie163128
De Witt157229
Mason154145
Piatt152414
Clay149643
Mercer149334
Johnson147616
Greene145134
Massac135840
Wabash135612
Cumberland130119
Menard125012
Jasper116718
Marshall108119
Hamilton84215
Schuyler7797
Brown7286
Pulaski7007
Stark64824
Edwards57712
Calhoun5302
Henderson52814
Scott4881
Putnam4863
Alexander47411
Gallatin4694
Hardin39112
Pope3284
Out of IL350
Unassigned02433

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 751242

Reported Deaths: 13795
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1032931788
Lake556911009
Allen41692692
St. Joseph36990565
Hamilton36588417
Elkhart29398461
Tippecanoe22901226
Vanderburgh22556400
Porter19356325
Johnson18471389
Hendricks17682317
Clark13226195
Madison13149344
Vigo12614253
LaPorte12419221
Monroe12207176
Delaware10966198
Howard10321225
Kosciusko9630121
Hancock8576146
Bartholomew8169157
Warrick7860156
Floyd7811180
Grant7242179
Wayne7162201
Boone6966103
Morgan6761141
Dubois6218118
Marshall6209116
Cass6016110
Henry5900110
Dearborn589878
Noble581488
Jackson509076
Shelby501496
Lawrence4742122
Gibson444894
Clinton442355
Harrison441875
DeKalb439885
Montgomery438090
Whitley406543
Huntington402681
Steuben400159
Miami395269
Jasper388054
Knox375991
Putnam372960
Wabash361983
Ripley347170
Adams345555
Jefferson335886
White331953
Daviess3033100
Wells295281
Decatur289992
Greene286885
Fayette284864
Posey273835
LaGrange273072
Scott270156
Clay267148
Washington246036
Randolph244783
Jennings235349
Spencer234531
Starke228058
Fountain220948
Sullivan214643
Owen211858
Fulton202942
Jay200932
Carroll193620
Orange188255
Perry187237
Rush175926
Vermillion174844
Franklin170335
Tipton166246
Parke149416
Pike138234
Blackford136232
Pulaski120647
Newton113936
Brown104243
Crawford102516
Benton101714
Martin91715
Warren84015
Switzerland8148
Union72810
Ohio57911
Unassigned0420