Intelligence officials weigh possibility coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

WASHINGTON — Although the the U.S. intelligence community early on dismissed the notion that the coronavirus is a synthesized bioweapon, it is still weighing the possibility that the pandemic might have been touched off by an accident at a research facility rather than by an infection from a live-animal market, according to nine current and former intelligence and national security officials familiar with ongoing investigations.

After extensive research, scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere have determined that the new strain of the coronavirus discovered in China in December is, as Chinese officials have maintained, of natural origin, but they are taking seriously that its route to human infection may have started in a lab in Wuhan. 

“It’s definitely a real possibility being bandied about at the high levels of the administration,” said one of the sources, who has knowledge of China and national security.

A technician works to produce vaccines for the H1N1 flu virus at a lab in Wuhan, China, in June 2009. (Reuters/China Daily)

“We are actively and vigorously tracking down every piece of information we get on this topic and we are writing frequently to update policymakers,” an intelligence official told Yahoo News. The intelligence community “has not come down on any one theory.”

While Chinese officials were quick to link the origin of the disease to infected animals at the Wuhan Seafood Market, which was formally closed on Jan. 1, scientists have not traced the initial exposure back to any specific animals. Therefore, an alternative possibility remains — that a natural virus sample being studied at a research laboratory in Wuhan infected a researcher who spread it in the community, or it escaped via hazardous waste or a lab animal.  

There are reasons to be wary of that theory. It may serve as a propaganda tool for politicians who want to fan tensions with China, and many scientists still argue that a natural outbreak is the most likely possibility, dismissing any alternative theory. But finding the source of the outbreak could also be vital in understanding how it spread and how to prevent the next potential pandemic.

In December, Chinese health officials began to publicly worry that the mysterious cluster of pneumonia patients in Hubei province might be a sign of something ominous. On Dec. 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission formally notified the World Health Organization’s country office in China about the worrying trend.

Since those initial reports, more than a million people around the world have tested positive for the new, highly infectious strain of coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19. More than 100,000 have died.

According to multiple news outlets, the intelligence community was gathering information on the outbreak as early as November. By the new year, the White House was being briefed on the potential that the virus would spread globally. Chinese officials were hiding some of the details, intelligence officials said, but they feared things could get much worse. President Trump, however, waited until March to recommend nationwide extreme social distancing measures to slow the outbreak. 

While the severity of the potential pandemic wasn’t understood back in November and early December, sources tell Yahoo News there has been intense internal interest in the source of the outbreak. While the intelligence community is not discounting a range of potential transmission vectors, including contact between humans and animals, officials are seriously pursuing the possibility that a natural sample of the virus escaped a laboratory. 

“It’s absolutely being looked at very closely at the highest levels,” said one intelligence source with knowledge of the investigations. The British government is reportedly considering the same possibility. 

One reason for the suspicion is the lack of information coming from China. Beijing’s quick denials of involvement, and the decision to immediately identify the Wuhan Seafood Market as the source, raised eyebrows among some U.S. intelligence officials.

“I find it very funny that China very quickly blamed the market,” said one recently retired intelligence official. 

The Chinese government did not respond to multiple requests for comment made through its foreign ministry and its embassy in the U.S. 

In fact, some of the very first cases of COVID-19 were not linked to the market, and there are a number of important research institutions in Wuhan where infectious diseases are studied.

Medical staff outside the Jinyintan Hospital, Wuhan, in January. (Reuters/Stringer)

Those include the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, the first publicly acknowledged lab with the highest biosafety standards; the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to one of the world’s top research groups on bat coronaviruses, where scientists have studied thousands of samples.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collaborates with researchers and institutions around the world, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a key site for the Global Virome Project, a global initiative focused on preventing the next pandemic by researching DNA and RNA of viruses in animals that could potentially infect humans. While that group does not typically work with intact virus samples, according to David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, “it is possible” that the researchers could have collected a virus sample from a bat and been researching it within the lab. 

The new virus’s genome most closely resembles a bat coronavirus discovered in July 2013 in Yunnan province in China, information made public by the Wuhan Institute of Virology only on Jan. 23 of this year. The progenitor of the current virus, says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, could be either the 2013 bat sample or another bat coronavirus that is closely related and hasn’t been discovered or disclosed as of today. 

Not all scientists agree with this possibility. Writing in Nature, a team of five scientists argued that the new virus, SARS-Cov-2, emerged too recently to have been identified, isolated from other virus samples, cultured and then accidentally released from a lab. Because there is so much variety in types of coronavirus in bats and other species, virus specimens are “massively under-sampled,” wrote the authors, making it less likely Chinese researchers discovered this specific strain. “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” they concluded.

However, even Chinese researchers initially speculated about the possibility of a lab accident in a preliminary paper posted in February on ResearchGate, a social networking site for scientists. “The killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan,” wrote researchers — although they also raised the possibility of natural transmission. “Safety level may need to be reinforced in high risk biohazardous laboratories,” continued Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao of Guangxhou’s South China University of Technology. Botao Xiao later withdrew the paper, telling the Wall Street Journal he did not have evidence for his theories. 

Two Chinese universities recently posted online notices placing restrictions on publishing academic research on the origins of the coronavirus, though those have since been removed from the internet. 

Public videos and articles have revealed poor safety standards on the part of some Wuhan researchers, including being exposed to bat urine and failing to wear proper protective equipment. Additionally, there have been incidents of SARS samples escaping from Chinese labs in the past.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former National Security Council official who worked on China issues in the Trump administration, told Yahoo News he believes a lab accident is a “definite possibility.”

“They have had prior accidental releases of the SARS virus. Also it seems the bats were not local to Wuhan. I do not know if the US government is looking into this,” he wrote in an email. But if the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab scientists were dabbling in potentially dangerous research, “Beijing would not want to call attention to [it],” he concluded.

Zheng-Li Shi, who leads the group studying bat coronavirus samples at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published a paper in 2016 in the Journal of Virology detailing experiments on two bat coronaviruses with features needed for human infections. According to the paper, the scientists maintained biosafety level two standards while conducting the research, which is in line with the international standards for coronavirus samples except for SARS and MERS. 

Dr. Doreen Muth of Germany's Bonn Faculty of Medicine working in a biosafety lab in 2013. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

There are four different biosafety levels. Level four is reserved for the most dangerous and infectious diseases, such as Ebola. Under biosafety level two, samples are considered “moderate-risk,” according to the CDC, leading to minimal requirements for hand-washing sinks, automatically locking doors and methods to decontaminate waste. 

Those standards may have been inadequate for coronavirus samples, experts argue.

“Virus collection, culture, isolation, or animal infection at BSL-2,” given the infectiousness of the coronavirus, “would pose a high risk of accidental infection of a lab worker, and from the lab worker, the public,” wrote Ebright in an email to Yahoo News. 

Ebright is one of many scientists who have pushed the global community to improve its handling of dangerous pathogens, a problem not just for China but for labs worldwide. USA Today in 2015 conducted a wide-ranging investigation of accidents, safety violations and potential disasters in U.S. labs, and found problems ranging from infected lab mice escaping to failures with protective gear. 

Relman, who has advised the government on emerging infectious diseases, told Yahoo News that whether the virus escaped from a lab or not — something he personally views as less likely — he hopes the pandemic will spur higher lab safety standards worldwide. “Standards are not clear enough, not uniformly practiced, and are not keeping up with advances in biological technologies — which, in theory, allow many more people to experiment with these viruses,” he wrote.

The possibility that the pandemic originated in a lab was first discussed publicly in mid-February as China hawks and Trump allies began to push the bioweapon angle. The New York Times reported that the main proponent of the lab accident theory is President Trump’s deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter in China with a reputation for hawkish views on Beijing. Pottinger, through an NSC spokesperson, declined to comment. 

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas publicly promoted a range of theories, including that the virus could have been a “deliberate release” or an “engineered bioweapon” that was accidentally leaked. However, Cotton, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also noted that the culprit could have been “good science, bad safety” or a mistake made in the course of honest research on “diagnostic testing or vaccines.”

Current and former intelligence officials familiar with internal briefings declined to provide details but noted the lab accident theory being promoted by Cotton may not be so crazy. “Tom Cotton is presenting some useful stuff there,” said one recently retired intelligence official when asked about the theory.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Another former intelligence official in touch with current officials told Yahoo News that Trump began calling the virus the “Wuhan virus” after intelligence briefings he received on its origin. Critics said this term, which is not used by the scientific community, was bolstering xenophobic attacks on Asian-Americans and Asians worldwide at a time when international cooperation is required to investigate the outbreak.  

The possibility that the virus leaked during a lab accident “is being seriously considered” within the U.S. government, according to another recently retired senior national security official, who pointed to the State Department’s 2019 compliance report on arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament. The report notes that Chinese officials have failed to reassure inspectors they are obeying the Biological Weapons Convention, including by not providing information about research on “numerous toxins with potential dual-use application.” 

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on whether compliance concerns extend to potential lab accidents of dangerous virus samples. But in late March, Yahoo News reported that the FBI detected samples of the SARS virus and flu in Chinese scientists’ luggage, presenting a “biosecurity risk” for both deliberate acts of terrorism and potential accidents during research.

According to the Washington Post, U.S. State Department employees visited the Wuhan virology lab in 2018 and sent a cable back home listing safety concerns about the lab’s bat coronavirus studies. Similar concerns were presented about the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab in 2017, though writers at the prestigious scientific journal Nature have since appended a notice arguing that their reporting on past safety concerns should not be used as evidence that a lab accident led to the 2020 pandemic. 

Sources declined to discuss any evidence, if it exists, that points to a potential lab accident, but the intelligence community is not ruling it out. 

“Absent a credible whistleblower or verified primary communication intercept, it will not be possible to prove the origins with certainty,” said Relman, the Stanford microbiologist. “However, with more relevant data, the likelihood of a natural virus versus accidental origin can be strengthened or diminished.”

One former senior CIA official said that if the virus did originate from a Chinese research institution, the U.S. intelligence community will eventually be able to prove it. “There will be disaffected Chinese sources,” the former official said. 

“Disasters are good for us,” the former CIA official continued. “The crappier the regime, the better it is to recruit sources there.”

Hunter Walker contributed reporting to this story.

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