China says FBI coronavirus 'lab leak' claims hurt US credibility

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By Rory Elliott Armstrong  & AP
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning during a press conference in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning during a press conference in Beijing.   -  Copyright  Liu Zheng/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning has accused FBI Director Christopher Wray's claims on the origin of the coronavirus and says they only further hurt US credibility. 

Speaking on Fox News on Tuesday, Wray said that the bureau believes COVID-19 "most likely" originated in a "Chinese government-controlled lab". According to the BBC, it is the first public confirmation of the FBI's classified judgement of how the pandemic virus emerged.

Wray's comments follow a report earlier this week which said the US Department of Energy had determined that a leak from a Chinese lab was the most likely cause of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many scientists have rejected the lab leak theory as lacking in evidence and other US government agencies have drawn differing conclusions from the FBI's. Some of them have said - but with a low level of certainty - that the virus did not start in a lab but instead could have jumped from animals to humans at one of Wuhan's seafood markets. 

The market is near a world-leading virus laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which conducted research into coronaviruses.

A natural origin is still the more likely theory, said Professor David Robertson, head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow. "There's been an accumulation of evidence (what we know about the viruses biology, the close variants circulating in bats and locations of early human cases) that firmly points to a natural origin centred on the Huanan market in Wuhan city," he said this week. 

In Tuesday's interview, Wray also accused the Chinese government of trying to stall US efforts to investigate the causes of the pandemic. "The Chinese government has been doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate the work here, the work that we're doing, the work that our US government and close foreign partners are doing," Wray said.

A joint China-World Health Organization (WHO) investigation in 2021 called the lab leak theory "extremely unlikely". However, the WHO investigation was deeply criticised and its director-general has since called for a new inquiry, saying: "All hypotheses remain open and require further study."

At Wednesday's press briefing, Mao reiterated a longstanding and unsubstantiated Chinese claim that the virus could have escaped from the US military research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. "The US should respect science and facts, cooperate with the World Health Organization as soon as possible, invite international experts to conduct traceability research in its country, and share research results with the international community," she said.

On Monday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that US President Joe Biden supports "a whole-of-government effort" to discover how Covid began. 

Tensions in bilateral ties between the US and China have spiked in the wake of the recent spy balloon saga but the scientific community sees it as crucial to determine the origins of the pandemic in order to better fight or even prevent the next one.