The theory COVID-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China — and not naturally in wildlife — has emerged as an explosive claim pitting scientists, who remain skeptical of the claim, against Trump administration officials, who have rallied around the theory as the White House turns to deflecting attention away from criticism it faltered in its handling of the outbreak and casting blame onto China; here’s a timeline laying out the progression of the theory:
The conservative Washington Times publishes a report with the menacing headline “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program,” which immediately gets global pickup.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., becomes the first high-profile U.S. politician to raise the possibility that the outbreak “originated”— or, presumably, was created—in the Wuhan lab — while admitting there was no evidence to suggest there was.
The Washington Post finds experts who quickly dismiss Cotton’s suggestion, like Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, who says, “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”
Cotton clarifies his earlier remarks in a series of tweets—noting different possible scenarios, from a man-made virus theory to a lab accident—though concedes that the virus originating naturally is “still the most likely” theory.
A group of 27 prominent scientists outside China publishes a statement in The Lancet to “condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin“ and point out the research “overwhelmingly” concludes the “coronavirus originated in wildlife.”
“We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” five prominent scientists write in a report published in Nature Medicine.
The Washington Times adds an update to its original story, noting that “scientists outside of China have had a chance to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus” and have “concluded it does not show signs of having been manufactured or purposefully manipulated in a lab.”
CNN and Fox News report officials inside the government are investigating the claim the virus was released from the lab accidentally as scientists were studying infectious diseases (the reports indicate the intelligence officials do not believe the virus is man-made or developed as a bioweapon.)
The director of the Wuhan lab, Yuan Zhiming, denies any link between the virus and the lab in an interview with the state-run China Global Television Network.
President Trump says during a White House briefing that the U.S. government was looking into the claim the virus spread as a result of a lab accident and that it made “sense,” without citing evidence; during the same briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci throws cold water on the claim, citing a study that found the virus’s “mutations” are “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”
The theory picks up steam among other GOP lawmakers, and Cotton now pens an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, writing: “While the Chinese government denies the possibility of a lab leak, its actions tell a different story.”
The New York Times reports that senior Trump administration officials, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pushed U.S. spy agencies to dig up evidence linking the lab to the origin of the outbreak even though most intelligence agencies remain skeptical of finding any evidence to support any link to the lab.
The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community releases a statement saying the intelligence community “concurs with the scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified” but added officials will continue to “rigorously examine emerging information” to determine whether the “outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
During a White House event, President Trump says, without providing specifics, he has a “high degree of confidence” the virus came from a lab in Wuhan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says on ABC News “This Week” that there is “enormous evidence” to support the theory that COVID-19 came from the lab, though agreed with the inspector general that the virus did not appear “manmade or genetically modified,” and would not say whether he thought it was intentionally released because the “Chinese Communist Party has refused to cooperate with world health experts."
A Chinese newspaper controlled by the government comes out forcefully against Pompeo’s claims in an editorial, writing that Pompeo had “stunned the world with groundless accusations.”
In an interview with National Geographic, Fauci says there is no evidence the virus was “artificially or deliberately manipulated,” that all signs indicate that the virus “evolved in nature and then jumped species,” and doubted that could have escaped the Wuhan laboratory.
During an on-camera press briefing at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley says “we don’t know” whether the outbreak began in a Chinese lab or a wet market, and added “the weight of evidence is that it was natural and not manmade.”
Pompeo seems to hedge his statements, now saying, "we don't have certainty," the virus leaked from the lab, even though "there is significant evidence that this came from the laboratory.
China has become a target for Trump and Republicans looking to cast blame for the crisis in the U.S. The Trump administration has been faulted for its own response to the virus, and the theory that the virus spread from a lab has emerged as a potentially powerful way to change the subject. Still, Trump, Pompeo and other administration officials have yet to produce any public evidence supporting the claim. Scientists from multiple countries have said that evidence suggests the virus originated from wildlife, not a lab — and most intelligence agencies remain skeptical evidence can be found to prove any lab claim as well. A few scientists have suggested it’s possible the virus accidentally infected one of the researchers in the lab, but many scientists have dismissed the theory. The New York Times reported on April 30 that some U.S. intelligence officials are worried the pressure from Trump officials could muddy any assessments about the origins of the virus and be used as fodder in an ongoing political battle with China. An American intelligence report linking the origin of the outbreak to the Wuhan lab would have devastating implications for U.S.-Chinese relations.
In an editorial, the state-controlled Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, wrote that Pompeo should provide evidence for his lab claim. "Since Pompeo said his claims are supported by 'enormous evidence,' then he should present this so-called evidence to the world, and especially to the American public who he continually tries to fool," the editorial said.
Scientists say that all seven known human coronaviruses originated in bats, mice or domestic animals.
On April 25, Politico reported that a memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee instructed GOP campaigns to say China caused the virus “by covering it up” and that Democrats are “soft on China.”