Coronavirus World Updates – The New York Times


julian barnes

In the world of intelligence, there’s this old adage that there are secrets and mysteries. Secrets are something that one government hides from another. Mysteries are things that your intelligence community can’t answer for you.

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The difference matters to an intelligence agency like the C.I.A. because if something’s a secret, then it’s information they can go out and find or steal. But if something’s a mystery, there is no information to get. And this adage has come up a lot in recent weeks. It is really a crucial question as intelligence agencies are looking at where this coronavirus came from. Did it come from a lab in China? And does the Chinese government know it? Is that a secret that’s being kept, or is it a mystery that nobody knows?

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michael barbaro

From the New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

In the absence of a clear explanation for how the coronavirus started, several theories have circulated. Today, Julian Barnes on the Chinese Lab Theory.

It’s Thursday May 7.

Julian, tell me about this theory that I know has taken hold, pretty much across the United States, about the origins of this virus.

julian barnes

Well it’s kind of a vague theory when you hear people talk about it. There’s all kinds of different versions.

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Did it come from that infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology? And if so, how will we find out?

julian barnes

There’s versions of an animal slipping out of a lab in Wuhan.

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I know we’ve been saying that perhaps the virus got out of that virology lab by accident. Was it really an accident?

julian barnes

Or a worker having it on their clothing and taking it out.

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— that because of lax safety protocols, an intern was infected who later infected her boyfriend, and then went to the wet market in Wuhan where it began to spread.

julian barnes

There’s a version that talks about infected animals being disposed improperly.

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Early research suggests humans picked up the coronavirus from animals, possibly bats, but it’s not clear how the virus made that jump.

julian barnes

And all this has sort of swirled, almost like gossip, but all pointing to a lab in Wuhan. And you can understand why that theory gained traction. Because there is a level four lab studying coronaviruses, the very strain of coronaviruses that unleash this global pandemic.

michael barbaro

So that much is true. There actually is a lab that studies the coronavirus in Wuhan, where this outbreak began.

julian barnes

Yeah, that’s right. It’s not a bioweapon lab. It’s not for a nefarious purpose. In fact it’s for a public health purpose. They study coronaviruses for the hopes of protecting people from them. But the fact of the matter is there are deadly strains of coronavirus inside this lab. So these theories that we’re all talking about, they made it to the White House. They made it to the White House pretty early, back in January. Back in January, Matthew Pottinger, who is the deputy national security advisor, started asking questions about where this came from. Was it accidentally created in a lab?

michael barbaro

Mm-hm. And what is the response to this question that this senior official is asking?

julian barnes

Well, about this time, as the White House starts pushing for this information, the C.I.A. is concluding that China is not being honest about the numbers in Wuhan Province.

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The death toll in China has risen to 56 people. That’s 15 more deaths in the past 36 hours.

julian barnes

They started briefing the White House that China is misstating — understating the numbers.

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Nearly 2,000 people are infected.

michael barbaro

And why is that important?

julian barnes

I was speaking to a European intelligence official who said, you know, when the numbers first came out of Wuhan, they were making estimates of how dangerous this disease was based on that. But then, in February —

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Covered head to toe in protective gear, doctors work around the clock and compare the situation to a war zone.

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Your health system, no matter how good, how efficient, how modern it is, sooner or later will collapse because the number of patients is too high for the resources we have.

julian barnes

The virus hits Italy. And the mortality numbers there were way worse than what was reported in Wuhan.

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And Italy has the highest mortality rate anywhere in the world, with 3,000 —

julian barnes

And it started to look, to some people, like the Chinese government was trying to keep a secret.

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So if that is the case, what else has China been lying about? That’s the question —

michael barbaro

Right. And if China has lied about mortality rates in Wuhan, then they could be lying about everything.

julian barnes

Right. In the minds of intelligence officials, if China is lying about their numbers, lying about their mortality statistics, they could also be lying about the origin of the virus, the origin of the pandemic. They could be lying about the lab, about what they know about the lab. So this idea that China is not sharing all that it knows, that China may be misleading, convinces policymakers in the White House that there are secrets out there. And people like Pottinger, who have been predisposed to distrust China, it gives them ammunition to argue, throughout the government, that this is worse than you think. China is at fault. And then —

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President Donald Trump announces Richard Grenell will become acting director of national intelligence. Grenell will be in charge of the nation’s 17 spy agencies.

julian barnes

— the intelligence agencies get a new director of national intelligence.

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A former spokesman turned Fox News talking head turned ambassador with very little — actually no — intelligence experience.

julian barnes

Now, Rick Grenell is an interesting figure. He does not come from the world of intelligence. Rick Grenell is a partisan defender of the president. He is one of the most effective people at pushing the president’s agenda. He is the ambassador to Germany. So he deals with intelligence, he receives intelligence, but he’s never been a collector of intelligence. But he does know what the president wants. He does know what the president is interested in. And he sort of has an intuitive understanding that the origin of this outbreak is going to be a piece of information that’s very important to Donald Trump.

michael barbaro

So what happens with Rick Grenell in this role?

julian barnes

Well, what happens next is there’s some intelligence that comes in on March 30, some new intelligence that Chinese officials have discussed the possibility that the virus came from the lab.

michael barbaro

Wow.

julian barnes

Yeah. So this piece of intelligence changes some minds of the people who have seen it. Some people who were skeptical of the lab theory start to see it as a real possibility. The president is really intrigued. Grenell convenes a review. He brings together the various intelligence agencies to discuss what they know. They actually conclude that they can’t make a conclusion. They don’t know where it came from. There are open-source science articles. There are questions about the safety of the lab. There is this very idea that we were talking about, about the coincidence. But there’s no smoking gun. All the intelligence agencies agree there’s just not one hard piece of evidence that says, there, this shows that it came from a lab.

michael barbaro

Hm. Julian, you just said that the fact that China is looking into this same question that American intelligence officials are seemed to add credibility to the American theory. But as I’m thinking about it, it occurs to me, doesn’t that suggest that the origin story here is a mystery, perhaps, rather than a secret? And what I mean by that is, if the Chinese government is looking into this question, wouldn’t that mean that they don’t know the answer, and that they’re not trying to cover it up. They’re just trying to figure it out for themselves.

julian barnes

That’s right. And that’s how some people in the intelligence world look at it. They say, you know, China is struggling for this answer too. This answer is not out there. Others who are more skeptical believe that China is covering it up from its own people, and that the number of people who would know about this is very small, and China is very good at keeping its secrets.

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You can have a situation where the central government doesn’t know something, but officials at a lower level do know the answer, but they’re afraid to tell it. They could put their own lives in danger to spread a piece of bad information. So finding something out in a country with an authoritarian system like that makes it much more difficult.

michael barbaro

Because it might not be a dichotomy. It might be both a secret and a mystery.

julian barnes

That’s right. It might be a secret and a mystery.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So at this point in our story, Julian, what is the state of this theory?

julian barnes

Well, this theory starts to really be picked up by conservative media.

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I have been asked by a tremendous number of people if I believe that the Chi-Com government did this on purpose.

julian barnes

Rush Limbaugh is talking about the Wuhan lab.

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Now we’ve basically confirmed this. The belief is that the virus escaped from that high-security virology lab.

julian barnes

It is frequently discussed on Fox News.

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Joining me right now is Senator Tom Cotton himself. He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

julian barnes

Senator Tom Cotton has made multiple appearances to sort of ask questions.

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So we don’t know where it originated, but we do know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level four super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.

julian barnes

And there’s this increasing focus, on the right, about the lab theory, as part of an effort to hold China responsible.

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For more, let’s bring in the secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Good morning, Mr. Secretary.

julian barnes

And into this comes Mike Pompeo. He begins to really run with the lab theory.

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And Mr. Secretary, have you seen anything that gives you high confidence that it originated in that Wuhan lab?

julian barnes

In one interview, Pompeo says there’s significant evidence to support the theory —

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There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.

julian barnes

— to convince people that the lab theory is the leading theory, the foremost theory.

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I think the whole world is united, understanding that China brought this virus to the world.

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Thanks very much for joining us, Mr. Secretary. We appreciate your time.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

Thank you, Martha.

michael barbaro

And is Pompeo right? I mean, is he seeing something that you haven’t? Because from everything you’ve said so far, there is not significant intelligence that this originated in a lab in China.

julian barnes

No, there isn’t significant evidence. The intelligence agencies haven’t been able to say that the lab theory takes precedence from whether the virus was naturally created outside a lab just by a natural transmission between an animal and a human. And in fact, scientists are pretty skeptical that this came from the Wuhan lab. They believe there had to be an intermediate step from the bat viruses that were studied in the lab to another animal. And so the growing body of scientific voices is pushing against what Pompeo is saying right now.

michael barbaro

And Julian, especially given the lack of evidence, is there a risk to the United States going after China on this front, accusing them of starting it in a lab?

julian barnes

Oh, absolutely. I mean, China controls a lot of the pharmaceutical supply chain. They are the country that makes masks and protective gear. Picking a fight with China could cause them to slow the flow of that desperately-needed equipment. And there’s also a race for a vaccine. I mean, China may get a vaccine for this coronavirus before the United States or Europe does. And what if Beijing is so angry at the Trump administration for its blaming of China that they withhold that vaccine? There is absolutely a risk in this strategy.

michael barbaro

Well, then, so why would Republicans and the conservative media want to pick this fight?

julian barnes

Well, remember where we are. We are in April. Tens of thousands of people are dying. The lockdown and public health measures have frozen everything. And people are blaming Trump. And his best case for re-election, a strong economy, has disappeared. So it is a way to deflect the blame from Washington and put it on China.

michael barbaro

But why isn’t it enough just to know it came from China? Why do they want to pin it to a lab in such a precise way?

julian barnes

Because if it came from an accident in a lab, then there was a misstep. It’s just not dumb luck. Somebody did something wrong, and the Chinese have something to account for. And for President Trump, this is an important idea. It would pin responsibility on China. And this idea that his critics say his inaction made the situation worse in the United States, well, President Trump could argue, no, what could I have done? China unleashed this on the world through their negligence.

michael barbaro

But it feels like there’s one immovable obstacle to all of this, and it’s that the intelligence agencies, which you cover, they are not giving the president, they’re not giving the secretary of state, any of the evidence that would be required to make this public case. It’s just not happening.

julian barnes

Yeah, that’s right. This would be a much easier case for President Trump to make, for Secretary Pompeo to make, if the statement from the intelligence community was, Yes, we see this evidence. But that’s not what they’ve said. They’ve said they’re looking into this. They can’t conclude what the leading theory is. They cannot pin it on the lab.

michael barbaro

But as long as the intelligence agencies say they are looking into this, this idea is going to hold a lot of power in people’s minds, and it’s going to be part of our civic and political discourse. So do we know whether they’re ever going to be able to answer the question?

julian barnes

Intelligence officials say, to answer your question, they need access to that lab. They would have to be able to look at the samples there. They would have to be able to talk to the workers. And without access to the lab, that smoking gun is not something that they can get. They can’t get at the secret.

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They say, Only once you get into that lab can you know, was there a secret they were hiding or were they as blind as we were? Was it in fact a mystery?

michael barbaro

Julian, thank you very much.

julian barnes

Thank you.

michael barbaro

On Wednesday, China fired back at the Trump administration over its suggestion that the virus had originated in a lab there, calling it, quote, “blame-shifting” that should be ignored by the American public. Hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took questions from reporters about his role in promoting the theory.

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You said, in multiple interviews, on May 1, April 30, and other days, some version of “we don’t know if the virus came from inside the lab in Wuhan.” And then, on Sunday, you said there’s enormous evidence the virus came from inside the lab.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

Those are both true. Listen, I’ve now answered this question, I think it’s the 13th time. Happy to try to answer it again. I’m not sure what it is that — about the grammar that you can’t get. We don’t have certainty about whether it began in the lab or whether it began someplace else. There’s an easy way to find out the answer to that: transparency, openness. The kinds of things that nations do when they really want to be part of solving a global pandemic, when they really want to participate —

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today. On Wednesday, President Trump reversed course on his plan to shut down the coronavirus task force, and said that instead it would continue on indefinitely.

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I think it is a change a little bit. I thought we could wind it down sooner.

michael barbaro

During an appearance in the Oval Office, the president acknowledged that he had changed his mind after receiving negative feedback to his original plan.

archived recording (donald trump)

I had no idea how popular the task force is until, actually, yesterday. When I started talking about winding it down, I get calls from very respected people saying, “I think it would be better to keep it going. It’s done such a good job.” It’s a respected task force.

michael barbaro

And several states in Brazil began lockdowns on Wednesday after the death toll in that country reached a daily peak of 633 people. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, compared it to a, quote, “measly cold,” and attended a rally against lockdowns.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.



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