(CNN) — “We want to know what led to this, so we can try to prevent something similar from happening in the future.”
those words of Dr David Relmanan infectious disease expert and microbiologist at Stanford University, reflected the national conversation about the origins of covid-19 in 2021.
Did it come from a lab? Was it a zoonotic transfer? Anything else? Surely, in time, an answer would become clear.
But now, three years after the start of a pandemic that is still disrupting everyday life, an assessment by the US Department of Energy. it only adds to the confusion about what really happened in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
The Department has assessed that the Covid-19 pandemic likely arose from a laboratory leak in China, according to a recently updated classified intelligence report first reported by The Wall Street Journal this Sunday.
However, two sources said the department assessed in the intelligence report that it had “low confidence” that the coronavirus accidentally escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Natasha Bertrand reported.
Intelligence agencies can make assessments with low, medium, or high confidence; and a low confidence assessment generally means that the information obtained is not reliable enough or too fragmented to make a more definitive analytical judgment or that there is not enough information available to draw a stronger conclusion.
The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, acknowledged this Sunday in “State of the Union” on CNN that the intelligence community is divided on the matter, noting that President Joe Biden has poured resources into getting to the bottom of the origin question.
The intelligence community has been divided on the issue for years.
- In 2021, the intelligence community declassified a report showing that four intelligence community agencies had assessed with little confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans naturally in the wild.
- The pandemic was assessed with moderate confidence to be the result of a laboratory accident.
- Three other elements of the intelligence community could not rally around any explanation without additional information, according to the community report.
Laboratory leak theory gains traction
For most of 2020, proponents of the lab leak theory had to battle claims they were xenophobic or racist, thanks in part to anti-China rhetoric from then-President Donald Trump, who embraced the theory.
An investigation launched by Trump’s State Department, which sought to investigate whether China’s bioweapons program might have played a greater role in the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan, it closed early in the Biden administration.
A letter from public health experts published in February 2020 in The Lancetan influential scientific journal, also set the tone by declaring the virus to be of natural origin.
But the lab leak theory has gained more traction over time, especially after reports that the intelligence community found evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology got seriously ill with a mysterious virus in November 2019, although it is unclear if they contracted covid-19, and no further evidence has emerged to corroborate that report.
By July 2021, senior Biden administration officials overseeing an intelligence review into origins believed the lab leak theory was at least as believable as the possibility that the virus arose naturally in nature, a dramatic change from the previous year, when Democrats publicly downplayed such an idea.
“Not a definitive answer”
The latest intelligence assessment was provided to Congress at a time when Republicans on Capitol Hill have been pushing for further investigation of the theory, while accusing the Biden administration of downplaying its possibility.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said Sunday he was “pleased” that the Department of Energy “has finally come to the same conclusion that I’ve already come to.” (The Texas Republican had published a 2021 report that concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence” showed that the pandemic originated with a leak from the Wuhan lab.)
“Now is the time for the entire Biden administration to join the Department of Energy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the majority of Americans in publicly concluding what common sense told us at the outset: the covid-19 pandemic is originated from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China,” McCaul said in a statement.
Sullivan said Sunday that Biden had directed that national laboratories, which are part of the Department of Energy, participate in the evaluation.
“At this time, no definitive answer has emerged from the intelligence community on this question,” Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash.
“Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, others on the other. Several of them have said they simply don’t have enough information to be sure.”
So where does that leave us? Not far from where we started.
past pandemics arose from natural transmission via animals, and it often takes months or years to discover the host the virus passed through as it adapted to infect humans.
In some cases, such as the Ebola virus, the original natural source has never been identified. And more than 40 years have passed since the first cases of Ebola.
So why does it matter where covid-19 came from? As Relman, the Stanford microbiologist, previously told CNN, finding the answer may help prevent the next pandemic.