Fox News and one of its overseas sister publications, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph in Sydney, are hyping an intelligence dossier by the “Five Eyes” countries — the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — on China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, presenting it as evidence that the virus originated in an infectious disease research laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
But at the same time, intelligence professionals in those other countries do not appear to be backing up that assessment at all.
On Monday’s edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the eponymous host brought up the “multinational” Five Eyes report to play up this theory’s credibility.
“In effect, this new report confirms much of what we've suspected,” he said. “No, the virus likely did not come from mammals that for some reason were being sold in a seafood market in Wuhan, not from bats, not from pangolins, whatever those are. No, instead it much more likely came from a research lab, as the Chinese all but admitted at the outset.”
But those other countries’ intelligence officials aren’t actually backing up this theory. And as noted by Foreign Policy magazine, the dossier contains only a small mention of the virus’s supposed laboratory origins:
The only specifics about the origin of the virus in the dossier, as reported by the Telegraph, point to a study from the South China University of Technology that concluded that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan lab.
That two-page paper, which was not peer-reviewed and which was pulled by ResearchGate shortly after it was released in February, offers no firm scientific evidence but nevertheless concludes “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” One of the authors later repudiated his initial findings in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Contrary to some suggestions, the lab is tasked with curing infectious diseases, not creating them—work encouraged in the past by the United States itself.
The Daily Telegraph article, headlined “Dossier lays out case against China bat virus program,” deals heavily in innuendo about the virus research programs at the Wuhan facility:
In Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, not far from the now infamous Wuhan wet market, Dr Shi and her team work in high-protective gear in level-three and level-four bio-containment laboratories studying deadly bat-derived coronaviruses.
At least one of the estimated 50 virus samples Dr Shi has in her laboratory is a 96 per cent genetic match to COVID-19. When Dr Shi heard the news about the outbreak of a new pneumonia-like virus, she spoke about the sleepless nights she suffered worrying whether it was her lab that was responsible for the outbreak.
As she told Scientific American magazine in an article published this week: “Could they have come from our lab?” Since her initial fears, Dr Shi has satisfied herself the genetic sequence of COVID-19 did not match any her lab was studying.
Yet, given the extent of the People’s Republic of China’s lies, obfuscations and angry refusal to allow any investigation into the origin of the outbreak, her laboratory is now being closely looked at by international intelligence agencies.
The US’s position, according to reports this week, is that it is more likely the virus leaked from a laboratory but it could also have come from a wet market that trades and slaughters wild animals, where other diseases including the H5N1 avian flu and SARS originated.
The Western governments’ research paper confirms this.
The kernel of truth in all of this is that the Chinese government has been a fundamentally dishonest actor throughout the crisis. The regime covered up the severity of the virus and the extent of the outbreak, silencing whistleblowers along the way. (The report, in turn, documents much of this pattern, as Foreign Policy notes.)
The regime deserves no real defense, which gives a sheen of plausibility to various conspiracy theories, even though serious intelligence professionals do not seem to be taking the bait.
On Monday night, diplomatic sources spoke to CNN and cast doubt on the idea that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab:
"We think it's highly unlikely it was an accident," a Western diplomatic official with knowledge of the intelligence said. "It is highly likely it was naturally occurring and that the human infection was from natural human and animal interaction." The countries in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition are coalescing around this assessment, the official said, and a second official, from a Five Eyes country, concurred with it. The US has yet to make a formal assessment public.
Additionally, intelligence sources also told The Guardian that “there is nothing to indicate a leak from the lab could have caused the pandemic.” The Guardian also noted that “Intelligence sources in Australia were quick to say they believed it was based on open source, public domain material.”
Carlson also interviewed Daily Telegraph reporter Sharri Markson, hailing her for “an amazing piece of journalism,” and saying he was “ashamed that no one in America beat you to it.”
Neither Markson nor Carlson mentioned that her own article noted that the Australian government puts the chances of the virus having leaked from the laboratory at only 5%.
The New York Times reported on April 30 that the Trump administration is pushing intelligence officials to find evidence that would back up the idea that the virus originated or got released from the Wuhan lab:
Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.
Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.
Politico also reported in mid-April that intelligence agencies had been looking into the claim that the virus came from a Wuhan lab: “They’ve been examining the theory for months, said people briefed on the intelligence, and the congressional intelligence committees have been asking various agencies if hard evidence exists to support it. So far, there is none, multiple sources familiar with the matter told POLITICO.”
Right-wing media have long pushed the conspiracy theory that the virus may have been manufactured in the laboratory. The prominent British medical journal The Lancet — which had published an article often cited by those pushing the argument — pushed back against the claim in February, releasing a statement explaining that multiple studies of the virus genome by scientists confirmed the view that it originated naturally in wildlife. It further said that “conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”
And in an article published Monday in National Geographic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, reaffirmed not only the position that the virus was not manipulated artificially in a lab, but also the fallback position that it could have been naturally occurring but then leaked from the facility:
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what's out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” Fauci says. Based on the scientific evidence, he also doesn’t entertain an alternate theory‐that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to a lab, and then it accidentally escaped.
On a side note, the Daily Telegraph article discussed concerns about past manipulation of bat-linked coronaviruses in the Wuhan lab — which multiple countries do in partnership, in order to study potential future outbreaks and prepare for worst-case scenarios — and the danger that such research could lead to an accident. In fact, the article noted, these potential risks led to cutoffs of funding in the past, but with funding resuming later:
The US withdrew funding from controversial experiments that make pathogens more potent or likely to spread dangerous viruses in October 2014, concerned it could lead to a global pandemic.
The pause on funding for 21 “gain of function” studies was then lifted in December 2017.
This seems to be a disclosure that only an overseas right-wing media outlet could make, in this context: It is not likely that Fox News would play up the fact that the American government cut off funding for this Wuhan lab during the Obama administration, citing safety concerns, only for it to be restored under the leadership of President Donald Trump.