US intel review inconclusive on COVID-19 origin
An intelligence community report released Friday was inconclusive as to whether COVID-19 originated in a lab or jumped from animals to humans naturally, though U.S. officials stated that it was not developed as a biological weapon.
The report by the intelligence community (IC) said both the lab leak theory and naturally occurring theory were plausible.
“The IC assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019,” according to a two-page summary of the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered,” the report stated, while noting two elements of the intelligence community did not believe there was sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion.
“Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged,” it added.
The unclassified summary report came after President Biden instructed intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts” to come to a definitive conclusion on the disease’s origins. He set a 90-day deadline, and was briefed on the report earlier this week.
“While this review has concluded, our efforts to understand the origins of this pandemic will not rest. We will do everything we can to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world, so that we can take every necessary precaution to prevent it from happening again,” Biden said in a statement after the report summary was released.
While the lab leak theory was initially dismissed as unlikely, it’s received traction as some scientists have expressed openness to the theory.
Scientists haven’t discovered definitive proof the virus leaked from a lab. But they also have not found hard evidence that shows the virus started in animals before naturally infecting humans, which is why some argue an investigation is needed.
The report shows an intelligence community largely divided over the origins of the disease, with several of the 19 different agencies that comprise it coming to different conclusions.
The push to find the origin of the virus has been politically charged from the start, and Friday’s report is unlikely to significantly change the debate over the issue.
Former President Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were some of the first people to blame a Chinese lab leak for the introduction of the virus. However, the assertion came in the midst of an election year as officials sought to deflect responsibility from their botched handling of the virus. Neither Trump nor Pompeo ultimately produced any evidence.
Some Republicans have also been strongly hinting that the National Institutes of Health funded research in the Wuhan lab that was ultimately used to create the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Public health officials have vehemently denied this, and outside scientists have noted that even if there was a lab leak, it doesn’t mean the virus was human-made.
Still, the report was definitive that the virus was not a biological weapon developed in a Chinese lab, a theory pushed by some Republicans despite scant evidence.
Four elements of the community had a low degree of confidence that the disease resulted from zoonotic transmission, or natural exposure, while three were unable to draw a conclusion and one had moderate confidence the disease was the result of lab exposure “probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
“Variations in analytic views largely stem from differences in how agencies weigh intelligence reporting and scientific publications, and intelligence and scientific gaps,” the report states.
International efforts to fully understand the origins of the virus have been hindered by a lack of cooperation from the Chinese government, a fact the report makes clear.
The intelligence community said without China’s cooperation and new information, they will be unable to provide a more definitive assessment of COVID-19’s origins.
“China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States,” they wrote.
In his statement, Biden was particularly critical of China for failing to be forthcoming with information about the virus.
“To this day, the PRC continues to reject calls for transparency and withhold information, even as the toll of this pandemic continue to rise. We needed this information rapidly, from the PRC, while the pandemic was still new,” he wrote, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
“Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities to the rest of the world. Pandemics do not respect international borders, and we all must better understand how COVID-19 came to be in order to prevent further pandemics,” Biden added.
Updated: 4:52 p.m.