Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she believes U.S. officials made a mistake in initially dismissing the idea that COVID-19 was the result of a laboratory, saying “some of the evidence was right in front of our faces.”
“There was too much of a tendency, early on, to dismiss this possibility of a laboratory leak and I think the press bears some responsibility for this,” she said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Rice, who served as national security adviser during the SARS outbreak in 2003, said one early red flag was that U.S. officials had previously called safety practices “substandard” at a lab studying coronaviruses in bats in Wuhan, China.
State Department diplomats inspected the lab in 2018 and, according to cables obtained by a Washington Post columnist, there were concerns raised about the “risk of a new SARS-like pandemic” emerging due to inadequate safety measures at the lab.
Rice also noted that in November 2019, before China reported the first COVID-19 cases, the country had patients with “suspicious symptoms.”
While Rice may not be the best messenger to criticize failed intelligence assessments, many press accounts and some government officials downplayed the possibility that COVID-19 resulted from a lab leak. Now many are taking the theory more seriously. According to the State Department, researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology had fallen sick “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness” and the Chinese Communist Party had prevented them from being interviewed.
“Maybe that was a time to start asking tough questions,” said Rice.
Rice additionally expressed concern about the World Health Organization’s close partnership with China during their joint investigation into the spread of the virus. The WHO released the results of the study, conducted with China, on the origins of the virus in March. The report has been criticized by 13 countries, including the U.S.
“We perhaps didn’t say enough about the problems about the WHO going in and allowing the Chinese to control the territory while they were trying to investigate,” she said.
Rice recommended that the U.S. act more aggressively with China on such matters going forward.
“Given what we experienced with SARS and, by the way, avian flu as well in the early 2000s, I don’t think it was worth trusting that the Chinese were being transparent about what was going on there,” she said. “I think we made a mistake earlier on and many people, many officials dismissed this possibility.”
Rice’s comments on the origin of the virus follow President Joe Biden announcing late last month that he is pushing the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble its efforts” in investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus. He said he expects a report on its origins within 90 days.
As early as January 2020, conservative commentators and politicians began to suggest that the emergence of COVID-19 wasn’t natural. After the outbreak was declared a pandemic that March, Trump — who is a fan of bolstering conspiracy theories — began repeating such chatter.
The same day that Trump suggested at a press conference in April 2020 that he had personally seen evidence that the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, U.S. intelligence agencies released a statement saying “that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
Scientists and researchers also disputed the lab leak theory, arguing that the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — rules out the possibility that it was created in a lab.
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