Australia hits back at US claim linking coronavirus to Wuhan lab

Daniel Hurst and Ben Doherty
Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The Australian government has pushed back at US claims the coronavirus may have originated in a Wuhan lab and has determined that a “dossier” giving weight to the theory is not a Five Eyes intelligence document.

It is understood the Morrison government sees the promotion of the theory the virus leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan, China, as counterproductive to Australia’s push to gain broad international support for an independent inquiry into the origins and overall handling of the pandemic.

But the government appears to be walking a diplomatic tightrope, declining to back up the claim while also not wishing to antagonise its US allies – given that Donald Trump and the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have claimed there is enormous evidence for the theory.

Speculation about the possible involvement of the US embassy in distributing the dossier to News Corp has raised the diplomatic temperature.

Related: WHO says it has no evidence to support 'speculative' Covid-19 lab theory

The embassy in Canberra declined to comment on a report in the Nine newspapers on Thursday of suspicions within senior ranks of the government and the intelligence community about a staffer’s possible role.

The deputy chair of the Australian parliament’s intelligence and security committee, Anthony Byrne, has been angered by the reported dossier, fearing the episode was reminiscent of the saga surrounding intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.

Guardian Australia understands Byrne, a Labor MP, has been in regular contact with the intelligence community and senior members of the government to support them in pushing back against US government claims.

In those conversations, he has argued that the dossier publicised in a weekend newspaper report was a crude attempt to influence Australia to act against its national interest on the basis of intelligence that didn’t exist.

The tensions flow from a report in News Corp’s Daily Telegraph last Saturday that the 15-page “dossier prepared by concerned Western governments” included a raft of criticisms of China’s “assault on international transparency’’ and concerns about practices at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The dossier cited a research team’s work discovering samples of coronavirus from a cave with genetic similarity to Covid-19, along with the synthesising of a bat-derived coronavirus that could not be treated, the Telegraph reported.

The same article reported agencies within the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK – were investigating the matter.

However, Guardian Australia has learnt that Australia has determined the report is not a Five Eyes intelligence document. It is not believed to include original intelligence from human sources or electronic intercepts.

Instead, the document appears to be a compilation of open-source material – reports and studies that were publicly available. The identity of the author remains unclear.

It is further understood that Australian intelligence agencies are not backing up the line promoted by Trump and Pompeo, who said on Sunday there was “enormous evidence” that the virus began in the lab.

Pompeo appeared to soften his comments on Wednesday when he conceded that “we don’t have certainty about whether it began in the lab or whether it began someplace else”.

Concerns the pandemic may have been triggered by a possible lab accident in Wuhan have been present in Australian policy discussion since the outset of the crisis, but there has never been enough evidence to support the contention.

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Scott Morrison has carefully declined to buy into the lab origin theory over the past week, saying he had “not seen anything that suggests that conclusively”.

“There’s been no change to the Australian position on this … which was to say that we can’t rule out any of these arrangements … but the most likely has been in a wildlife wet market,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“What’s really important is that we have a proper review, an independent review, which looks into the sources of these things in a transparent way so we can learn the lessons to ensure that were there to be a virus of pandemic potential that would originate anywhere else in the world, we can learn the lessons from that.”

With that focus, Morrison has written to G20 countries – including China and the US – to try to build support for an independent review “at the right time”.

The review would look at the outbreak’s emergence, development into a pandemic, the WHO’s and broader international response, and ways to strengthen the world’s collective ability to respond to pandemics.

The Australian government wants the changes to include strengthened inspection powers for the WHO. At the World Health Assembly on 18 May, Australia plans to support an EU-sponsored draft resolution that includes a call for an independent evaluation to review lessons learned.

Allan Behm, the head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute and a former senior defence official, said those pushing the Wuhan labs story without solid supporting intelligence or evidence were not helping Australia’s call for a properly conducted international review.

“It just doesn’t help Australia in pushing that, any more than fake intelligence on WMD helped the credibility of John Howard in 2003, and I suspect that’s why the government is treading very carefully this time,” Behm said.

Other experts backed up the need for the dossier to be treated with caution.

“The origins of the document are opaque, and the reliability of the sources are not fully corroborated,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said.

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“And there are some political overtones which means you have to suspend judgment on its veracity, reliability and accuracy.”

Dr Hume Field, science and policy advisor for China and Southeast Asia with EcoHealth Alliance and an international authority on emerging zoonoses associated with bats, said an investigation into the origin of Covid-19 “should be driven by science, not politics”.

Field, an epidemiologist who worked on the multi-national investigation into the origin of Sars which included scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said the the molecular biological evidence demonstrated no evidence that SARS-Cov-2 was created or manipulated in a laboratory.

“It’s puzzling to me, there is a perfectly natural or scientific explanation staring you in the face. But there seems to be a need from some people to say ‘that’s too simple, there must be a conspiracy here’.”