One U.S. intelligence agency assesses with “moderate confidence” that the coronavirus most likely emerged from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, while four U.S. spy agencies and the National Intelligence Council believe with “low confidence” that COVID-19 most likely has a natural origin, with other parts of the U.S. intelligence community remaining on the fence.
The one unnamed spy agency leaning toward the Wuhan lab theory with "moderate confidence" assessed that "the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling" by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to an unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. ODNI said that those analysts "give weight to the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses."
The four unnamed spy agencies, and the NIC, with "low confidence" in the natural origin hypothesis assessed that "the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus — a virus that probably would be more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2." ODNI said that those analysts "give weight to China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge" and to "numerous vectors for natural exposure."
ODNI's report added that "analysts at three intelligence community elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely."
The ODNI said the intelligence community assesses that the novel coronavirus probably emerged and infected humans through an "initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than" November 2019, with the first known cluster of cases emerging in Wuhan in December 2019.
The ODNI had said in May that "two elements of the intelligence community lean toward" a natural origin, while "one leans more toward" the lab leak and that both were with "low or moderate confidence." President Joe Biden then called upon the intelligence community to “redouble” its investigation and gave it a 90-day clock. He was briefed on the classified version of the assessment earlier this week.
The ODNI said Friday that the intelligence community assesses that COVID-19 was not developed as a "biological weapon." The unclassified report said that most agencies also assessed with “low confidence” that the virus probably was not genetically engineered, although "two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way." The ODNI also said the spy community assessed that China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of SARS-CoV-2 before the initial outbreak occurred.
The intelligence community remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19 after examining all of the available intelligence, though all of the spy agencies assess that both natural exposure to an animal and a laboratory-associated incident remain plausible hypotheses.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans concluded early this month that the evidence points to COVID-19 emerging from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late August or early September 2019, with China covering it up for months.
In early February, World Health Organization team leader Peter Ben Embarek said the possibility the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan lab didn’t merit further inquiry, saying a jump from animals to humans was most likely and that an accidental release was "extremely unlikely." But days later, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reversed that statement, saying, “All hypotheses remain open and require further study.”
The WHO-China report was widely considered a failure, partly due to the lack of access to key data and Chinese influence over the investigation, and Embarek has admitted that the Chinese government applied pressure regarding the report’s conclusions.
A State Department fact sheet released in January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.” The fact sheet asserted the lab “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military” and that lab workers became sick with coronaviruslike symptoms in fall 2019.
Biden released a statement on Friday, saying: “While this review has concluded, our efforts to understand the origins of this pandemic will not rest.”
“Critical information about the origins of this pandemic exists in the People’s Republic of China, yet from the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it,” Biden said. “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.”
The United States and its allies are still pinning their hopes for a second origins investigation in China on the WHO, despite the first team's visit to Wuhan earlier this year being marred by Chinese government influence, lack of access, and conflicts of interest. The WHO-China study deemed the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely,” and meeting minutes with the Wuhan lab dismissed it as a “conspiracy theory.”
The ODNI said Friday that the intelligence community as a whole judged it won’t be able to provide a more definitive explanation for the origins of COVID-19 "unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged."
It said the intelligence community and the global scientific community lack the necessary clinical samples and epidemiological information from the earliest cases in China, and ODNI added that "if we obtain information on the earliest cases that identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses."
Ultimately, the ODNI said China’s cooperation would likely be needed to reach a conclusive assessment on COVID-19’s origins but that Beijing continues to hinder the global investigation, block information-sharing, and falsely blame the U.S.
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Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy