The UK believes it is highly likely the strain of coronavirus behind the global pandemic first passed from animals to humans naturally unconnected to a laboratory, Sky News understands.
The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 – might have leaked accidentally from a Chinese laboratory cannot be disproved, but it is considered unlikely, according to informed Whitehall sources.
The UK position contrasts with a claim by US President Donald Trump, who said he had seen evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the pandemic.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went further, alleging there was a significant amount of evidence to support this theory.
The US administration has heaped blame on China for the pandemic in a standoff that has made the question about the origin of the virus increasingly political.
A statement released by US spy agencies last week was more balanced when considering whether the virus first infected humans naturally from an interaction with an animal or whether transmission happened by accident in a laboratory.
However, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all US intelligence and security agencies, did not place weight on either theory, in contrast with the UK.
The intelligence community “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” its statement said.
Neither the US nor the UK believe that the virus was man-made.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed any suggestion it was the origin of the pandemic.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, also rejected President Trump’s claims as “disinformation”.
The UK position on the origin of the novel coronavirus is more in line with Australia’s – a fellow member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community along with the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has said the most likely scenario is that it started at a wildlife wet market in the city of Wuhan. He is leading calls for an international investigation into what happened.
The UK believes that the precise location where the first animal to human transmission happened might never be known.
In Washington on Tuesday, the top US general said the origin of the virus remained a mystery.
“Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan? Did it occur in a wet market there in Wuhan? Did it occur somewhere else? And the answer to that is: We don’t know,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference.