It is still too early to tell. We do not know its origin for sure.
We have neither any hard evidence for nor anything against this claim. What we do have is a few plausibility hypothesis to weigh against each other. And expert opinions gauging them.
With the lab-origin theory steadily gaining more ground and those figures still defending the purely natural zoonosis theory becoming ever more clear as being tainted with strongest conflicts of interest.
Calling the lab origin hypothesis 'a conspiracy theory' is callous and at least premature.
It never was per se a 'conspiracy theory', but a legitimate concern that even Shi Zhengli director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology shared early on:
… Shi Zhengli, was 'muzzled' from revealing her findings, which has prompted fears of a cover-up by the Chinese authorities. […]
"I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China. I remember thinking 'could they have come from our lab?'"
– Jane Lavender: "'Bat Woman' scientist who could cure coronavirus has chilling warning for the future", Mirror, 14:21, 16 Apr 2020.
If we were to apply a certain razor heuristic to evaluate both, the lab origin hypothesis is certainly the more parsimonious explanation, certainly by May 2021.
1. First of all: While the question 'as is' misrepresents the origin of the claim:
The Washington Times article just says this:
Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program
That does not say 'the lab made this'! It also does not say that this is a lab developing bio-weapons. The article just states that
the institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.
What seems to be known now via genomic sequencing is:
Developing a vaccine for example — whether for 'normal' viral diseases or even for something someone might want to try as a bio-weapon — is not the same as 'making' a weaponised virus. Especially not 'constructing it artificially' or even breeding it up to increased virulence…
2. Second, we have limited knowledge about this, and that state is likely to continue for quite some time.
Given what’s known about the pace at which viral genomes mutate, if nCoV had been circulating in humans since significantly before the first case was reported on Dec. 8, the 24 genomes would differ more. Applying ballpark rates of viral evolution, Rambaut estimates that the Adam (or Eve) virus from which all others are descended first appeared no earlier than Oct. 30, 2019, and no later than Nov. 29.
The progenitor virus itself was almost certainly one that circulates harmlessly in bats (as SARS does) but has an “intermediate reservoir” in one or more animals that come into contact with people, Andersen said. Presumably, that reservoir is one of the species of animals at the Wuhan market thought to be ground zero for the outbreak. The ancestor of 2019-nCoV existed in that species for some unknown time, never infecting people, until by chance a single virus acquired a mutation that made it capable of jumping into and infecting humans.
The genome sequences suggest that was a one-time-only jump. “The genomes [from the 24 samples] are very uniform,” Andersen said. “If there had been multiple introductions,” including from many different animals, “there would be more genomic diversity. This was a single introduction.”
— Sharon Begley: "DNA sleuths read the coronavirus genome, tracing its origins and looking for dangerous mutations", StatNews, Jan 24, 2020
Whether the Chinese lab in that region is linked to any bio weapons programme is of course a boon for any conspiracy theory. But this is wholly irrelevant to whether the lab is the source of that outbreak now. Even if there are zero links to 'the military': a lab that studies viruses can leak those viruses.
And that such leak might have occurred is deemed as plausible as the wholesome naturally infected via animal reservoir on the market place or in kitchen.
Conveniently, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory in the centre of the disease outbreak is officially equipped to handle the virus, 'safely':
— Nicoletta Lanese: "Only one lab in China can safely handle the new coronavirus", Live Science, 22 Jan 2020.
Other experts other than the source quoted in the Washington Times article were also not overly excited about that lab:
But worries surround the Chinese lab, too. The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy. “Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says.
The plan to expand into a network heightens such concerns. One BSL-4 lab in Harbin is already awaiting accreditation; the next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming, the latter focused on using monkey models to study disease.
Lina says that China’s size justifies this scale, and that the opportunity to combine BSL-4 research with an abundance of research monkeys — Chinese researchers face less red tape than those in the West when it comes to research on primates — could be powerful. “If you want to test vaccines or antivirals, you need a non-human primate model,” says Lina.
But Ebright is not convinced of the need for more than one BSL-4 lab in mainland China. He suspects that the expansion there is a reaction to the networks in the United States and Europe, which he says are also unwarranted. He adds that governments will assume that such excess capacity is for the potential development of bioweapons.
“These facilities are inherently dual use,” he says. The prospect of ramping up opportunities to inject monkeys with pathogens also worries, rather than excites, him: “They can run, they can scratch, they can bite.”
Trevan says China’s investment in a BSL-4 lab may, above all, be a way to prove to the world that the nation is competitive. “It is a big status symbol in biology,” he says, “whether it’s a need or not.”
— David Cyranoski: "Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world's most dangerous pathogens", Nature, 22 February 2017.
This is even echoed – again – in a recent newspaper article from April 14, 2020, this time in the Washington Post: "State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses"
That it is a genuine zoonosis was the immediate reaction in expert circles. That it really is 'that' is nowhere confirmed as of now. We know that the Virus was originating from Wuhan, that at least one lab working in that field is there. And that the Wuhan National Laboratory is 'declared safe'.
Not more. Accidents and other incidents can happen, and did. Whether one did at this facility remains speculation, but one that is neither proven nor disproven at this time.
Stating anything as conclusive on this question seems to be another case of China coronavirus: Misinformation spreads online about origin and scale. So please, hold your horses.
— Kat Eschner: "We’re still not sure where the Wuhan coronavirus really came from. China’s wet markets don’t tell the whole story", PopSci, January 28, 2020.
The earliest cases now analysed say that out of 41 patients 13 had no link to the sea food/wet market.
Exposure history to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale market served as an important clue at the early stage, yet its value has decreased as more secondary and tertiary cases have appeared.
Many important questions remain unanswered, including its origin, extent, and duration of transmission in humans, ability to infect other animal hosts, and the spectrum and pathogenesis of human infections.
— Chen Wang: "A novel coronavirus outbreak of global health concern", The Lancet, Published: January 24, 2020.
So it's prudent to remember that initially the MERS virus was shown to originate in a patient zero from June 2012 in Arabia, while later analysis of blood samples traced it back to an unidentified hospital outbreak in Jordan in April 2012.
We have to wait for more information.
This information is still not forthcoming to a satisfactorily unequivocal degree. But the plot has thickened quite a bit recently, from numerous sides in favour and against, the most substantial ones are in favour for the lab-origin, and one is being summarised as:
In summary, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that a laboratory accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is by far the most likely cause of the Corona pandemic. In this case, it would not be a "natural disaster" but a tragedy brought about by human beings themselves. There is a very real danger in declaring the question of the cause of the current pandemic "settled," as in the statement by some virologists. For policy makers, it makes an undeniable difference whether they are supporting wildlife markets or high-risk research with genetically engineered viruses and which should be banned worldwide. This question must be answered, otherwise corona and other virus species could develop a much greater potential danger potential, not only in the present, but also in the future.
— Roland Wiesendanger: "Ursprung der Coronavirus-Pandemie", Feb 2021 (https://www.researchgate.net/deref/http%3A%2F%2Fdx.doi.org%2F10.13140%2FRG.2.2.31754.80323)
After all, the most parsimonious theory about this is the lab escape, and not a purely naturally evolving zoonosis hypothesis. As for example Richard Ebright endorses now this overview article; summary:
After all, the more months pass without the natural emergence theory gaining a shred of supporting evidence, the less plausible it may seem. Perhaps the international community of virologists will come to be seen as a false and self-interested guide. The common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.
— Nicholad Wade: "Origin of Covid — Following the Clues
Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?", Medium-com, April 30,2021.
As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.
A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.
Finally, in this time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost. We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.
— Jesse D. Bloom, Yujia Alina Chan et al.: "Investigate the origins of COVID-19", Science Vol. 372, Issue 6543, pp. 694, Science 14 May 2021. doi: 10.1126/science.abj0016