Russia says coronavirus origin is unknown, as US-China tensions rise

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

Russia has sought to distance itself from a dispute brewing between the U.S. and China over the origin of the coronavirus, saying it can’t support a U.S. investigation into the source of the virus.

The comments to CNBC by Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, come after current and former U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News last week the country’s intelligence community was examining whether the coronavirus emerged accidentally from a Chinese lab.

This issue was never discussed by our two presidents,” Peskov said Tuesday, when asked if Putin had discussed the matter with his U.S. counterpart.

“We don’t think this issue of an investigation into the source of this virus is something that we can somehow support, so we don’t think this is a proper thing to try to investigate and to blame any nation in the world for this virus without having any evidence actually.”

It comes as Russia, an ally of China but friend too of U.S. President Donald Trump, tries to stay neutral amid the coronavirus pandemic that has strained U.S.-China relations — already at a low ebb after the drawn-out trade war —further.

Trump has attracted criticism for last month blaming China for the pandemic, and calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus.” He has also fallen out dramatically with the World Health Organization (WHO) over its treatment of China, accusing the UN’s health agency of being “China-centric.” He has also halted U.S. funding for the organization.

Trump was asked at the White House press briefing last Friday how active the U.S. investigation was into the possibility that the virus had emerged from a lab in Wuhan and Trump responded, “We’re looking at it, a lot of people are looking at it, it seems to make sense.”

A few days ago, Trump said that China should face “consequences” if it was “knowingly responsible’ for the pandemic.

The focus of the U.S. investigation is the Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was studying diseases in bats, although the lab has denied the allegations, calling them a “conspiracy theory.” 

The WHO has also waded in to the dispute, reiterating Tuesday that it was likely the virus had an animal origin and was not “a manipulated or constructed virus in a lab or somewhere else.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin listens while U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Nonetheless, questions over the origin of the virus are expected to continue as the pandemic continues to inflict a devastating toll on human life and the global economy. More than 2.6 million cases of the virus have been confirmed worldwide, and the global death toll stands at above 183,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Russia is itself experiencing a rapid acceleration in the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases. On Thursday, it recorded 4,774 new infections, bringing the total number of cases to 62,773, with 555 people reported to have died.

Peskov said Chinese-Russian relations had not soured as a result of the pandemic and said the neighbors were maintaining close relations.

Russia was one of the first countries to extend a hand of support to Chinese doctors when they first started to fight this infection … then China started to help Russia, sending equipment,” he said.

“Our leaders are in constant dialogue … This mutual challenge is really a reason for enhanced cooperation.”

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