US spies still do not know ‘where, when or how’ Covid was first transmitted in China but are working on theory it came from human contact with infected animals or a ‘laboratory accident’, intelligence chief reveals
- ‘The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially,’ Avril Haines told a Senate hearing
- She noted two theories – that Covid came from animals or a laboratory accident
- Many U.S. lawmakers have denounced China – where the virus originated – for failing to be more transparent about the early threat from the coronavirus
- Last month, the head of the WHO dismissed his own agency’s expert report into the origins of Covid-19 which the US has rejected as a political whitewash
Director of National Intelligence said on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies do not know exactly when or how COVID-19 was initially transmitted.
‘It is absolutely accurate that the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially,’ Avril Haines told a Senate hearing.
She noted two theories, that it emerged from human contact with infected animals or the result of a laboratory accident.
‘We’re continuing to work on this issue and collect information,’ Haines said in response to questioning by Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence panel, about the virus’s early spread in China.
The hearing comes weeks after the head of the WHO dismissed his own agency’s expert report into the origins of Covid-19, compiled after a team of WHO expert scientists visited Wuhan in China – the believed origin of Covid-19.
The 120-page report, which admitted the names of the 10-strong team were vetted by China for approval, praised Wuhan’s labs as ‘well-managed’, and gave credence to Beijing’s theory that the virus could have originated elsewhere and imported.
The US rejected the report as a political whitewash after it described the lab-leak theory touted by Washington as ‘extremely unlikely’.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies do not know exactly when or how COVID-19 was initially transmitted. Pictured: Avril Haines testifies during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Many U.S. lawmakers have denounced China for failing to be more transparent about the early threat from the coronavirus.
Former Republican President Donald Trump was criticized for calling it the ‘China virus,’ amid a rise in anti-Asian violence in the United States.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in March that data was withheld from WHO investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus, that has killed 3 million people globally, and over 560,000 people in the United States alone.
U.S. intelligence agency directors at the hearing were asked how much of their workforces had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said 80 percent of his agency had received at least one vaccine, and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Scott Berrier said 40-50 percent, but that was expanding quickly.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said he could not provide the committee with an approximate percentage because its workforce is spread across so many U.S. states.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Democrat of Florida, prior to testifying during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., April 14, 2021
Pictured: Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team, tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), don personal protection suits during a visit at the Hubei Animal Epidemic Disease Prevention and Control Center in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 2, 2021
United States spy chiefs say China is ‘unparalleled priority’
U.S. spy agency leaders said on Wednesday that China is an ‘unparalleled’ priority, citing Beijing’s regional aggression and cyber capabilities as they testified at a public congressional ‘Worldwide Threats’ hearing for the first time in more than two years.
‘Given that China is an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community, I will start with highlighting certain aspects of the threat from Beijing,’ Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
She described China as increasingly ‘a near-peer competitor challenging the United States in multiple arenas.’
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said his agency opens a new investigation linked to China every 10 hours.
Haines also cited Russian efforts to undermine U.S. influence, Iran’s contribution to instability in the Middle East, global terrorism and potential North Korean efforts to ‘drive wedges’ between Washington and its allies as significant threats.
The appearance by Haines and the other intelligence directors was the first such public ‘Worldwide Threats’ hearing since January 2019. Former President Donald Trump, who often clashed with security agencies, did not send officials last year to testify at what is normally an annual event.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s chairman, said he was ‘dismayed’ there had been no hearing last year.
Last month, the head of the WHO dismissed his own agency’s expert report into the origins of Covid-19 which the US has rejected as a political whitewash after it described the lab-leak theory touted by Washington as ‘extremely unlikely’.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused China of withholding data from a WHO panel and said the lab-leak theory should be studied further, only moments after the publication of the long-awaited report which rejected the idea altogether.
‘Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation,’ said Tedros.
‘I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,’ he added – in an astonishing rebuke to China for a figure who has long been accused of being too close to Beijing.
In response to the report’s publication, the United States and 13 allies on Tuesday jointly voiced concern and urged China to provide ‘full access’ to experts.
‘We join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China,’ said the statement issued by the United States with allies including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea.
Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s top diplomats have dismissed the report as biased towards China, with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo calling it a ‘sham’ and current envoy Antony Blinken saying that ‘Beijing apparently helped to write it’.
Pompeo branded the report a ‘disinformation campaign’ by China’s Communist party and the WHO, adding that the Wuhan Institute of Virology ‘remains the most likely source of the virus – and WHO is complicit’.
One of the team’s investigators has already said that China refused to give raw data on early Covid-19 cases to the team probing the origins of the pandemic.
But China praised the experts for their ‘scientific, diligent and professional spirit’, saying any further research should take place in other countries where it claims the virus could have originated.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured shaking hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last January, has been accused of being too close to Beijing
Mission leader Peter Ben Embarek (pictured) said the virus could have originated in China and spread abroad before it was first detected in Wuhan
Verdict: The WHO report says Covid-19 is ‘likely to very likely’ to have jumped to humans via a bat and another animal, might alternatively have jumped to humans in a single step, could possibly have via imported food and is ‘extremely unlikely’ to have leaked from a laboratory
The four theories for how Covid could have jumped to humans
The WHO report offered a ranked list of four possible ways the virus could have made the jump to humans.
‘Possible to likely’
Direct leap from humans to animals
‘Likely to very likely’
Introduced to humans through an intermediate animal host
China’s theory the virus could have originated elsewhere and been imported on frozen food
Virus was leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China
The 120-page report was drafted by WHO scientists and their Chinese counterparts after an expert mission to Wuhan earlier this year which was plagued by doubts about China’s transparency.
The report – which says that the names of the 10-strong panel were presented to Beijing for approval – praises Wuhan’s labs as ‘well-managed’ facilities where the virus is unlikely to have leaked.
But it gives more credence to Beijing’s pet theory that the virus could have originated elsewhere and been imported on frozen food – saying it is ‘possible’, though unlikely.
The report says the virus likely jumped from animals but leaves numerous questions unanswered, such as which animal was the suspected link between bats and humans – with mink, pangolins, rabbits and ferret badgers all named as suspects.
The report authors offered a ranked list of four possible ways the virus could have made the jump to humans, calling a direct leap ‘possible to likely’ and a scenario with an intermediate animal ‘likely to very likely’.
China’s frozen-food theory is judged ‘possible’ while the lab-leak theory is in last place with a verdict of ‘extremely unlikely’.
The lab-leak claims have centred on the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology based in the city where the outbreak first came to light.
The Trump administration claimed in its final days in office that some researchers at the lab had become sick in autumn 2019, before the first cases were confirmed.
But the WHO report rejects these claims, saying a staff monitoring programme had uncovered no suspicious illnesses in the weeks and months before the outbreak.
The WHO scientists acknowledged that ‘although rare, laboratory accidents do happen’.
But they said there is no record of any laboratory possessing viruses closely related to Covid-19 before December 2019, or sequences of genomes that could have produced the coronavirus in combination.
They also believe that the risk of ‘accidental culturing’ of the virus is ‘extremely low’.
US theory: Washington has touted claims that the virus could have leaked out of the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured last month
China’s official timeline vs new evidence
Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection
Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation
Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection
Jan 11 – China reported its first death
Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down
Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases
Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West
Sep 2019 – Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus
Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus
Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present
Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus
Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date
Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing
Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities
Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city
The report says that one Wuhan lab moved to a new location near the Huanan seafood market on December 2, noting that ‘such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory’. But it said that staff had ‘reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move’.
‘In view of the above, a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely,’ the report said.
However, Tedros said on March 30 that more work was needed, saying: ‘I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.’
On Beijing’s imported-food theory, the report says that ‘seafood is known as a source of foodborne outbreaks’ and added that China appeared to have experienced some outbreaks linked to frozen food since the initial wave of the disease.
‘The virus has been found on packages and products from other countries that supply China with cold-chain products, indicating that it can be carried long distances on cold-chain products,’ the scientists said.
However, they added that ‘the probability of a cold-chain contamination with the virus from a reservoir is very low’.
‘The consensus was that given the level of evidence, the potential for [Covid-19] introduction via cold/ food chain products is considered possible,’ it said.
Echoing China’s efforts to cast doubt on whether the virus originated in Wuhan at all, the report said that ‘it remains to be determined where SARS-CoV-2 originated’.
But it noted that evidence of the virus spreading before December 2019 had surfaced in numerous countries including Italy and France, even though China has never acknowledged a case from before that month.
Mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said the virus could have originated in China and spread abroad before it was first detected in Wuhan.
He added that the team had never expected to come up with a definitive answer on the virus source – with numerous questions remaining unanswered.
Mystery still surrounds the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after scientists said they could reach ‘no firm conclusion’ on whether it was to blame for the outbreak.
‘Many of the early cases were associated with the Huanan market, but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets,’ they said.
Chinese theory: Beijing has embraced the suggestion that the virus could have been imported on frozen food from abroad
However, they added that infections seemingly unconnected to the market could in fact have been linked by mild cases of Covid-19 which were never identified.
Tedros said at the time that ‘farmers, suppliers and their contacts will need to be interviewed’ as he called for further investigations into the origins of the disease.
Scientists also did not come to a conclusion on which animal might have been the link between bats and humans.
While the closest known viruses to Covid-19 have been found in bats, the ‘evolutionary distance’ between them is thought to be ‘several decades’.
That suggests a ‘missing link’ which might have been filled by mink, pangolins, rabbits or ferret badgers among other candidates, the report says.
In Geneva at the end of March, Dr Tedros had stressed that ‘all hypotheses are open, from what I read from the report… and warrant complete and further studies’.
The UK and US both raised concerns about China’s transparency during the WHO trip, which followed months of negotiations with Beijing.
The investigative panel was set up last July after countries including Australia angered China by calling for an investigation.
Members of the WHO’s expert panel arrive to visit a museum exhibition about China’s fight against Covid-19, on a visit in January which raised doubts about China’s transparency
It took months to select the 10 international experts, including epidemiologists and animal health specialists, amid diplomatic wrangling with China.
The report says that the list of experts was given to Beijing in September last year, which responded two weeks later that it had ‘no objection’.
In the end, they arrived in Wuhan more than a year after the virus was first identified there before erupting around the world and killing more than two million people.
The WHO report left ‘not everything answered’ but was ‘surely a good start’, Dutch virologist and team member Marion Koopmans said.
But Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, said he would like to see the report’s raw information first before deciding about its credibility.
‘I’d also would like to inquire as to the extent in which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data that they would need to make a determination,’ he said.
‘I want to read the report first and then get a feel for what they really had access to – or did not have access to.’
Scientists in several countries including France and Italy have found evidence that the virus had already reached them in the final months of 2019.
But it was not until December 31, 2019 that the WHO’s China office was informed of a mystery pneumonia which had sickened 44 people in Wuhan.
Later, the WHO was informed that at least one patient in Wuhan – a major transport hub – had been showing symptoms as early as December 8.
A separate WHO-backed report said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ last January.
It said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’ by both China and the WHO.
Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state under Donald Trump, slammed the report as a political whitewash by China’s Communist party
The criticism was at odds with the WHO’s public statements at the time, when it praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ with which it responded to the outbreak.
Beijing has touted its recovery from the early outbreak as a triumph for its Communist leaders, with China’s economy the only major one to grow in 2020.
But numerous reports have detailed how China withheld key details about the virus in its early stages, including from the WHO which has praised China in public.
A young doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded by police after trying to raise the alarm about the disease – and later died of it.
Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth said the WHO was guilty of ‘institutional complicity’ when it gave credence to some of Beijing’s early claims about the outbreak.
‘WHO has absolutely refused as an institution to say anything critical about China’s cover-up of human-to-human transmission, or its ongoing refusal to provide the basic evidence,’ he told reporters last month.
‘What we need is an honest, vigorous inquiry rather than further deference to China’s cover-up efforts.’
One diplomatic observer in Geneva said the WHO had let China do the preliminary investigative work on its own, and then control the terms of the investigation.
They added that some member states who had criticised the situation in private steered away from public criticsm.
Trump famously slammed the WHO over its relationship with Beijing, accusing the WHO of being a ‘puppet of China’ and covering up the initial outbreak of the virus.
He began the 12-month process of withdrawing from the organisation last July – a policy immediately reversed by his successor Joe Biden in January.
Covid-19 has killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide in the 15 months since it emerged, forcing governments around the world to introduce punishing restrictions that have pummelled the global economy.
The great cover-up of China: Beijing punished Covid whistleblower, claimed it came from US and ‘lied about death figures’
China has lied and covered up key information during virtually every stage of its coronavirus response – from the initial outbreak to the number of cases and deaths, and is still not telling the truth, observers, experts and politicians have warned.
Beijing initially tried to cover up the virus by punishing medics who discovered it, denying it could spread person-to-person and delaying a lockdown of affected regions – meaning early opportunities to control the spread were lost.
Then, once the virus began spreading, the Communist Party began censoring public information about it and spread disinformation overseas – including suggesting that US troops could have been the initial carriers.
Even now, prominent politicians have warned that infection and death totals being reported by the regime are likely to be wrong – with locals in the epicenter of Wuhan suggesting the true tolls could be ten times higher.
Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, began reporting the existence of a new type of respiratory infection that was similar to SARS in early December last year.
But rather than publicise the reports and warn the public, Chinese police hauled Wenliang and eight of his colleagues who had been posting about the virus online in for questioning.
Wenliang, who would later die from the virus, was forced to sign a document admitting the information he published was false.
While China has been widely-praised for a draconian lockdown that helped slow the spread of the virus, evidence suggests that the country could have acted much quicker to prevent the spread.
Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first Chinese medics to report the existence of the new coronavirus, was forced by police to confess to spreading false data. He later died from the virus
Samples analysed as early as December 26 suggested a new type of SARS was circulating, the Washington Post reported, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22 – almost a month later.
Wuhan’s mayor also admitted an error that allowed 5million people to travel out of the city before the lockdown came into place without being checked for the virus, potentially helping it to spread.
Chinese authorities have also been reluctant to had over information on the country’s ‘patient zero’ – or the first person known to have contracted the virus.
While Beijing claims the first infection took place on December 8, researchers have traced the virus back to at least December 1 and anecdotal evidence suggests it was spreading in November.
A lack of information about the first patient has meant scientists are still unclear how the disease made the leap from animals into humans.
Theories include that it could have been carried by a bat or pangolin that was sold at a market in Wuhan and then eaten by someone, but this has not been confirmed.
Chinese authorities initially reported that the virus could not spread person-to-person, despite evidence that it was spreading rapidly through the city of Wuhan including doctors being infected by patients.
This was used as justification for keeping the city of Wuhan operating as normal through a major CCP conference that was held between January 11 and 17, with authorities claiming zero new cases in this period.
China did not confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January, when large parts of Hubei province including Wuhan were put into lockdown.
Despite reporting the existence of a ‘novel type of pneumonia’ to the World Health Organisation on December 31, Wuhan’s largest newspaper also made no mention of the virus until the week of January 20.
That meant people in the city were not taking precautions such as social distancing to stop it spreading.
It also meant that people had begun travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday, which was due to start on January 24 and sees millions of people visit relatives, spreading the virus further.
Furthermore, China delayed reports suggesting that some 14 per cent of patients who initially tested negative for the virus or who appeared to have recovered tested positive a second time, only confirming such cases in February.
That further hampered efforts at early containment of the virus in places such as Japan, where patients who tested negative on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were allowed to leave – only to test positive later.
Authorities in Beijing were also slow to report the deaths of two doctors from the virus, including one who was killed on January 25 but whose death was not reported by state media until a month later.
The market was shut on January 1 after dozens of workers there had contracted the disease
Origin of the virus
Despite early admissions that the virus began in the city of Wuhan, China later back-tracked – even going so far as to suggest American troops had brought the infection over after visiting the province.
Lijian Zhao, a prominent official within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted out the claim on March 12 while providing no evidence to substantiate it.
‘When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals,’ he wrote.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused American military members of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan
Referencing a military athletics tournament in Wuhan in October, which US troops attended, he wrote: ‘It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.
‘Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!’
In fact, America’s ‘patient zero’ was a man who travelled from China to Washington State on January 15. The case was confirmed by the CDC six days later.
Chinese has also tried to push the theory that the virus originated in Italy, the country with the most deaths, by distorting a quote from an Italian doctor who suggested the country’s first cases could have occurred much earlier than thought.
Zhao spread the theory in a tweet, while providing no evidence to back it up
Giuseppe Remuzzi said he is investigating strange cases of pneumonia as far back as December and November, months before the virus was known to have spread.
Chinese state media widely reported his comments while also suggesting that the virus could have originated in Italy.
In fact, Remuzzi says, there can be no doubt it started in Wuhan – but may have spread out of the province and across the world earlier than thought.
China has reported a total of some 82,000 infections from coronavirus, claiming a domestic infection rate of zero for several days in a row recently – even as it eased lockdown restrictions in placed like Hubei.
But, by the country’s own admission, the virus is likely still spreading – via people who have few or no symptoms.
Beijing-based outlet Caixin reported that ‘a couple to over 10 cases of covert infections of the virus are being detected’ in China every day, despite not showing up in official data.
Meanwhile foreign governments have heaped scorn on China’s infection reporting cannot be trusted.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and former presidential candidate from the US, tweeted that ‘we have NO IDEA how many cases China really has’ after the US infection total passed Beijing’s official figure.
‘Without any doubt it’s significantly more than what they admit to,’ he added.
Meanwhile the UK government has also cast doubt on China’s reporting, with Conservative minister and former Prime Ministerial candidate Michael Gove claiming the Communist Party could not be trusted.
‘Some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this [virus],’ he told the BBC.
Meanwhile sources told the Mail that China’s true infection total could be anything up to 40 times as high as reports had suggested.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, has said that China’s figures cannot be trusted and a far higher than has been reported
Doubt has also been cast on China’s reported death toll from the virus, which currently stands at around 3,300.
Locals in epicenter city Wuhan have been keeping an eye on funeral homes since lockdown restrictions were partly lifted, claiming they have been ‘working around the clock’ to dispose of bodies.
China has reported 3,300 deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be in excess of 42,000
Social media posts estimate that 3,500 urns are being handed out by crematoriums each day, while Caixin reports that one funeral home in the city placed an order for 5,000 urns.
Locals believe that efforts to dispose of the bodies began March 23 and city authorities have said the process will end on or around April 5.
That would mean roughly 42,000 urns handed out in that time frame, ten times the reported figure.
Chinese aid packages
As it brought its own coronavirus epidemic under control and as the disease spread across the rest of the world, China attempted to paint itself as a helpful neighbour by sending aid and supplies to countries most in need – such as Italy.
In fact, while the Chinese Red Cross supplied some free equipment to the Italians, the country purchased a large amount of what it received.
Meanwhile officials in Spain said that a batch of coronavirus testing kits bought from China had just 30 per cent reliability – unlike the 80 per cent they were promised.
China has said it is willing to help supply the world with much needed aid and supplies, but has been accused of hoarding protective equipment and selling test kits that don’t work
China is also the world’s largest manufacturer of disposable masks of the kind being worn to slow the spread of the virus by people while out in public.
But as the disease began gathering speed in the country in January, China began limiting exports of the masks while also buying up supplies from other countries, the New York Times reported.
As well as halting virtually all exports of masks, China also bought up some 56million masks and respirators from overseas while fears of a pandemic were still far off.
Despite reports from US mask manufacturers of factories in Shanghai being effectively nationalised, China denies it has any such policy in place and has said it is ‘willing to strengthen international cooperation’ on the issue.
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