Australian intelligence knocks back US government's Wuhan lab virus claim
Australian intelligence agencies have questioned evidence trumpeted by United States officials supposedly linking the coronavirus to a Wuhan laboratory as concerns within the government grow that the push will derail efforts to eliminate dangerous wildlife wet markets. Senior members of the Australian intelligence community told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a research document shared in political circles under the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement was mostly based on news reports and contained no material from intelligence gathering.
United States secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on Sunday there is "enormous evidence" the coronavirus outbreak originated in the Chinese laboratory but did not provide any facts to back up his assertion. Mr Pompeo also said he agreed that the virus was not man-made. Multiple senior intelligence sources who spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in recent days have confirmed that Australia has still not been provided with any evidence that strongly suggests the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the outbreak. Intelligence agencies have not been able to rule out the Wuhan lab, but the more likely cause of the virus is still the city's Huanan Seafood Market where environmental samples of the virus were found. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday the Australian government did not have strong evidence linking the Wuhan lab to the virus. "There's nothing that we have that would indicate that was the likely source," Mr Morrison said. Senior members of the Morrison government are concerned the promotion of the theory is hampering efforts by Australia to pursue an independent coronavirus inquiry and its push to permanently end the sale of exotic wildlife in Chinese wet markets.
China announced a ban on exotic wildlife meat at the peak of the local outbreak in February but it has not eliminated the sale of animals for medicinal use. Chinese state media reacted furiously to the Wuhan lab Five Eyes claims published by News Corp Australia on Saturday, accusing it of perpetuating a US campaign led by Steve Bannon. In a series of comments last week, Mr Bannon, a former executive chairman of far-right website Breitbart and advisor to President Donald Trump, said China had to be held accountable for a "biological Chernobyl" and accused the Wuhan lab of premeditated murder.
Describing Mr Bannon as the "living fossil of the cold war," the Communist mouthpiece, People's Daily said the Trump administration was engaging in "unprecedented propaganda warfare" while trying to impede global efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, said media allegations could further exacerbate rising political tensions.
Some Australian media and political elites have lost their independent judgment of the country's overall interests and have adopted a US-led approach to smearing China over COVID-19," he told Beijing's Global Times.
There was also widespread concern within the government about Victorian Liberal senator Sarah Henderson's comments in News Corp papers on Monday that called for all virus research by foreign scientists in Australian laboratories to stop until a safety and national security review was done. Talking points distributed by the Prime Minister's office on Monday morning reminded Coalition MPs that the CSIRO undertakes due diligence before entering into research partnerships. Senator Henderson was commenting on reports that the CSIRO's bio-containment facility in Geelong has been undertaking research jointly funded by the Australian and Chinese governments.
CSIRO released a statement confirming it had no current joint research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and said it undertook all research in accordance with strict biosecurity and legislative requirements, which took security concerns into account.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who has been vocal in his calls for the global review, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he was not aware of any security concerns with CSIRO's research. "Scientific research cooperation and collaboration on zoonotic diseases with scientists from China and elsewhere is valuable, and important to help us better understand the nature of these diseases," he said.