Trump administration asks intelligence agencies to find out whether China, WHO hid info on coronavirus pandemic
The White House has ordered intelligence agencies to comb through communications intercepts, human source reporting, satellite imagery and other data to establish whether China and the World Health Organization initially hid what they knew about the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
A specific “tasking” seeking information about the outbreak’s early days was sent last week to the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which includes the National Center for Medical Intelligence, an official directly familiar with the matter said. The CIA has received similar instructions, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.
U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to refer to the request at his news conference, “We’re doing very serious investigations,” Trump said. “We are not happy with that whole situation, because we believe it could have been stopped at the source, it could have been stopped quickly, and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world.”
As part of the tasking, intelligence agencies were asked to determine what the WHO knew about two research labs studying coronaviruses in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first observed. The spy agencies have been investigating the possibility that the virus escaped accidentally from one of the labs, although many experts believe that is unlikely.
The move coincides with a public effort by the White House, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s political allies to focus attention on China’s inability to contain the virus shortly after it emerged.
“As the president has said, the United States is thoroughly investigating this matter,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “Understanding the origins of the virus is important to help the world respond to this pandemic but also to inform rapid-response efforts to future infectious disease outbreaks.”
The Trump administration has also accused the WHO of erring in January when it reported no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Trump, alleging that China exercised undue influence over the agency, has suspended U.S. funding of the WHO.
Initially, the WHO used conservative language. In a statement about the disease on Jan. 14 — regarding the first case outside China, in Thailand — the WHO said, “There is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
The agency soon stopped saying that, and by mid-January it was clear that the virus was spreading well beyond China.
U.S. intelligence agencies saw early warning signs of a health crisis in Wuhan as far back as November and that the National Center for Medical Intelligence predicted that the coronavirus would cause a global pandemic in February, well before the WHO declared one.