Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley held a joint press conference today with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. During a Q&A session, Fox News’ correspondent Jennifer Griffin asked a couple of questions including, “Do you have any evidence that the virus began in a Chinese lab and maybe was released accidentally?’
Sec. Esper didn’t answer the question but Gen. Milley did. “There’s a lot of rumor and speculation in a wide variety of media, the blog sites, etc.,” Milley said. He continued, “It should be no surprise to you that we’ve take a keen interest in that and we’ve had a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that.
“I would just say at this point it’s inconclusive although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural, but we don’t know for certain.”
There are at least three bits of news in this brief statement. The first is that the Pentagon is aware of the speculation and has already had intelligence agencies take a hard look at it. It would be interesting to know which agencies were involved in that (CIA? NSA?) and how they gathered information, but that’s not the kind of information the Pentagon is in the habit of giving out. I’m a little surprised Milley answer this question at all. In any case, the idea that this might have happened isn’t that crazy. In fact, something like this possibility was almost predicted.
Second, the fact that this remains “inconclusive” means the evidence isn’t iron clad. And that means it could be subject to reassessment upon further information either way. Milley didn’t say whether U.S. intelligence is still looking into it but that seems likely. I wonder what these agencies make of the fact that China has now clamped down on the publication of research about this topic.
Third, while there isn’t a conclusive answer at present, the evidence leans toward the idea this arose naturally, which presumably means that the virus jumped from bats to people (possibly through pangolins) in the Wuhan wet market. That’s exactly what happened with SARS 18 years ago, so it’s not like this is a stretch.
I am curious about the general’s use of the word “natural.” Presumably the other option in play here would also be natural, just from a different source of bats. Part of me wonders if he’s rebutting the “unnatural” possibility of an intentional release or an engineered virus. Unfortunately, there weren’t any follow up questions on that point.
Assuming the current weight of evidence is correct, responsibility for this still falls at the feat of the Chinese government which has promoted these wet markets despite the SARS outbreak and winked at the market for wildlife animals, like pangolins, that goes on in them. To prevent this from happening again, China needs to stop the trade in wildlife animals.
Here’s the press conference queued up to the question from Jennifer Griffin: