The top US spy agency has said for the first time that the country's intelligence community believes the COVID-19 virus that originated in China was not man-made or genetically modified.
The statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence comes as President Donald Trump and his allies have touted the as-yet-unproven theory that the source of the global pandemic which has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide was an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Chinese outbreak.
"The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified," the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement.
"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," it added.
The ODNI statement appears to sharply contradict theories floated by anti-China activists and some supporters of US President Donald Trump suggesting that the coronavirus had been developed by Chinese scientists in a government biological weapons laboratory from which it then escaped.
In recent days, the Trump administration has sharpened its rhetoric on China, accusing the geopolitical foe and vital trading partner of failing to act swiftly enough to sound the alarm to the world about the outbreak or to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. US officials have said the Chinese government should "pay a price" for its handling of the pandemic.
Trump on Thursday again blamed China for not doing enough to contain the coronavirus.
"We just got hit by a vicious virus that should never have been allowed to escape China," he said during an Oval Office meeting with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.
The Chinese government said on Thursday that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are "unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cited the institute's director, Yuan Zhiming, as saying the lab strictly implements bio-security procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen.
"I would like to point out again that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and it should be studied by scientists and professionals," Mr Geng said.
Mr Geng also criticised US politicians who have suggested China should be held accountable for the global pandemic, saying they should spend their time on "better controlling the epidemic situation at home."
But a Chinese government spokesman, Zhao Lijian, demonstrated that China was not above sowing confusion in the face of the pandemic. He tweeted in March the falsehood that the virus might have come from the US Army.
-AAP & AP