Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House on Friday rejected a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab.
Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease, said the available evidence on the origins of the virus is "totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human."
Fox News and Republican allies of President Donald Trump have been pushing the lab narrative in recent days, despite a lack of hard evidence to back it up.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease, on Friday, rejected a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was created in and escaped a Chinese lab.
At the daily White House press briefing, a reporter asked: "Mr. President, I wanted to ask Dr. Fauci: Could you address these suggestions or concerns that this virus was somehow manmade, possibly came out of a laboratory in China?"
"There was a study recently that we can make available to you, where a group of highly qualified evolutionary virologists looked at the sequences there and the sequences in bats as they evolve. And the mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now is totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human," Fauci replied.
He underscored in his remarks that studies of the virus' genome have strongly indicated that it was transmitted from an animal to a human rather than created or enhanced in a laboratory setting, as a review in a scientific journal found.
"We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," an analysis published in Nature Medicine in mid-March said. The study, led by computational biologist Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in California, compared COVID-19 to the six other coronaviruses known to infect humans. The analysis explicitly states that the evidence shows SARS-CoV-2 "is not a purposefully manipulated virus."
The US intelligence community has also been investigating whether the virus was collected by researchers and then accidentally leaked from a Chinese lab but has found no evidence to date backing it up, according to Politico, which cited multiple sources familiar with the matter. US officials reportedly raised issues about a Wuhan-based lab's security procedures in 2018, according to the Washington Post.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said that the origins of the virus appear to be linked to "a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread."
But the president and his allies in the right-wing media continue promoting the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.
"More and more, we're hearing the story, and we'll see," Trump said on Wednesday.
Scientists and authorities have not come to a firm conclusion about where the animal-to-human transmission first occurred and what role the wet market may have played.
—Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 15, 2020
On Friday, when asked "how active" the investigation was into whether the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan, China, Trump said: "We are looking at it. A lot of people are looking at it. It seems to make sense."
"A lot of strange things are happening, but there is a lot of investigation going on and we're going to find out," Trump added.
—JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) April 17, 2020
Fox News has been leading the charge on the Chinese lab theory despite lack of evidence
Meanwhile, Fox News, the president's preferred TV network, has been pushing the lab narrative hard over the past week. "Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China's efforts to compete with US," a report published on Wednesday and co-authored by Fox News anchor Bret Baier said.
Along these lines, Trump's advisers and congressional allies have been hammering China in recent days, excoriating the Chinese government over its lack of transparency about coronavirus.
GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — who has suggested the virus was developed in a Chinese "super-lab" — on Wednesday told Sean Hannity of Fox News that China "must be made to pay the price" if it's determined the virus came out of a Wuhan lab.
Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday told Fox News: "We really need the Chinese Government to open up. They say they want to cooperate. One of the best ways they could find to cooperate would be to let the world in, to let the world's scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread."
Trump denies the US has the most coronavirus deaths as his administration defends the country's testing capacity
Trump on Friday also expressed skepticism over the Chinese government's official death toll from the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. Based on the available data, the US is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the highest number of reported cases and confirmed deaths. But Trump dismissed those numbers.
"We don't have the most in the world deaths. The most in the world has to be China. It is a massive country...they must have the most," Trump said during Friday's press briefing.
As of Friday evening, there were nearly 700,000 reported cases of coronavirus in the US, and over 36,000 confirmed deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Comparatively, the data said China has seen nearly 84,000 cases and over 4,600 deaths.
Beyond Trump, there's been widespread skepticism across the international community over China's official numbers, but the Chinese government has rejected allegations of a cover-up.
Amid the increased focus on China, the Trump administration continues to face strong criticism from Democratic lawmakers and public health experts over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump spent weeks downplaying the threat of the virus on top of early stumbles at the federal level that left the US behind much of the world on testing for the virus. The lack of widespread testing is one of the biggest hurdles to the future returning to work places of non-essential employees.
Some Democrats and former US officials have accused Trump of using China, and more recently the World Health Organization (WHO), as a scapegoat to deflect from his own failures in handling coronavirus. The president earlier this week announced a plan to cut funding to the WHO, criticizing the agency for praising China's transparency in the early days of the outbreak. But Trump was also praising China around the same time and continued to applaud its handling of the crisis well into February as the virus was spreading in the US.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
Trump has pushed back hard on any criticism of his response and berated reporters who've questioned him about the testing shortages in the US.
Vice President Mike Pence and other officials on the coronavirus task force on Friday said that the capacity of testing for coronavirus in the US has increased to a point where governors can initiate the first of three phases that are part of the administration's guidelines on easing social distancing and reopening the economy. But earlier on Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphasized that his state, which has been hit the hardest by the novel coronavirus, still needs help from the federal government with testing.
—QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) April 17, 2020
On Monday, Trump falsely claimed he had "total" authority to force governors to end coronavirus restrictions in order to restart the economy, but he backtracked by Thursday and said he would leave such decisions up to the states.
By Friday, however, Trump was on Twitter encouraging residents of Virginia and Michigan to "liberate" their states, which came as some states have seen protests against stay-at-home orders.
When asked about this at Friday's press briefing, Trump said he did not think his tweets were at odds with the administration's measured guidance for easing restrictions that leaves the timeline up to governors.
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