What we know about the “laboratory leak theory” of the covid-19 virus (Analysis)


(CNN) — An updated assessment by US intelligence services on the origins of Covid-19 has reopened the long-standing, unresolved debate about how the virus originated, and will feed into a new committee created by House Republicans. of Representatives to investigate the matter.

While scientists continue to predominantly believe that the virus occurred naturally in animals and spread to humans in an outbreak at a market in Wuhan, China, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence , for its acronym in English) is now the second US government intelligence entity, along with the FBI, to endorse the “laboratory leak theory”, the minority view that the virus was produced as a result of work in a Chinese laboratory.

The DOE office is one of 18 government agencies that make up the intelligence community, under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Most of the intelligence community remains divided or favors the theory that it occurred naturally, which scientific investigations have concluded to be the most likely. But without conclusive evidence, no one has been able to completely reject the lab leak theory.

The theory has received much attention from Republican lawmakers, and surveys conducted in 2021 suggest that most Americans believe the Chinese government had something to do with the origins of the virus. When asked if they believed the virus originated from a Chinese laboratory leak or from human contact with an infected animal, nearly half (52%) responded that they believed it was a laboratory leak.

Now that they have a majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans have created a special subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee to investigate, among other things, China’s role in the early spread of the virus and the US government money that helped fund some research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the research center at the center of the leak theory.

The lack of answers about the origins of covid-19 and the accumulation of circumstantial evidence have led some scientists, the Biden administration and the World Health Organization to argue that the laboratory leak theory needs further study. If only China would cooperate.

US lawmakers who have pushed the lab leak theory seized on information about the Energy Department’s new assessment, though details of what led to the assessment are not yet public.

“I am pleased that the Department of Energy has finally come to the same conclusion that I have already come to,” he said in a release Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has demanded more information about the Department of Energy’s assessment and vowed to push for more such reports to be declassified.

Still a minority opinion

The change of heart from the Department of Energy’s intelligence office is far from fully endorsing the “leak from the lab” theory.

To begin with, the conclusion was reached only with “low confidence”, as opposed to medium or high confidence.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Natasha Bertrand explain the levels of trust:

Intelligence agencies can make assessments with low, medium, or high confidence. In general, a low confidence assessment means that the information obtained is not reliable enough or is too fragmented to make a more definitive analytical judgment, or that there is not enough information available to draw a stronger conclusion.

It’s unclear exactly what changed for the officials who participated in the Energy Department assessment, but whatever it was hasn’t convinced most intelligence agencies.

According to a two-page list of findings from President Joe Biden’s initial 2021 intelligence community review of the origins of COVID-19, four members of the intelligence community and the National Intelligence Council believed, like the most scientists, that “natural exposure” caused the virus.

Three elements of the intelligence community did not believe there was enough evidence to make a determination. And one agency, which CNN previously reported is the FBI, had medium confidence in the lab leak theory.

There is consensus on some key points

While the intelligence community remains sharply divided on what led to the virus, they were completely aligned on three key points when they first issued a declassified two page report in 2021:

  • The virus was not developed as a biological weapon.
  • Most agencies believe that the virus was not genetically modified. (Two agencies thought there was not enough evidence to make an assessment either way.)
  • Officials in China had “no prior knowledge of the virus” before the initial outbreak.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that China has not been cooperative in finding out how the virus evolved.

Previous research has not answered the question.

CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, did a lengthy report in 2021 on all the available evidence and spoke to several people who had weighed in on the available evidence. A. Chris Gajilan has a lengthy report on what can be learned from all of this and how a key WHO assessment failed due to lack of cooperation from the Chinese government.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who Republicans said they will call before Congress to testify about the origins of the disease, has repeatedly repeated that he believes the virus most likely occurred naturally. , since other similar viruses have evolved in this way.

But he’s been careful to add that it’s important to keep an “open mind” about the possibility of a lab leak.

An open and high-level commission could help

While there are multiple theories as to how it happened, there is also an understanding that we may never know.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever get a real answer,” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen said Monday morning.

Bergen argued that the US government should preempt politically divisive theories and form a bipartisan group to write a final, public report.

“We have never had a covid commission like the 9/11 Commission,” he said. “I think we desperately need it. Because more Americans have died of covid than have died in all US wars since the American Revolution, which is a staggering number; That’s a major national security issue.”

China should “be more honest”

The State Department on Monday renewed its criticism of China’s openness about the origins of the virus.

“If we are going to do something to strengthen the World Health Organization, then we will have to put pressure on China to be more active in it and, of course, to be more honest about what happened three years ago in Wuhan with the origin of the covid-19 crisis,” US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns told reporters.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, in separate comments to reporters, accused China of “from the outset blocking international researchers and members of the global health community from accessing the information they need to understand the origins of covid-19”.

“Regardless, we know the next step”

CNN’s John King asked Dr. Megan Ranney, vice dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, why it matters, right now, where the virus came from.

Ranney argued that if the virus came from a lab leak, it means the world needs better biosafety protocols.

If the virus came from animal-to-human transmission, we need to be able to respond more quickly to outbreaks.

“Regardless, we know the next step,” Ranney said. “While we’re focused on where Covid-19 started, we’re not spending time on how to prevent America from having to go through the last three years again.”

“The evidence is not there”

King also spoke with Beth Sanner, the former deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration during the Trump administration, about the report.

“If you want to blame someone in terms of how this all played out, it’s very clear that China covered this up, didn’t move fast enough and is now blocking the investigation,” he said.

But he said it’s important to look at all of the intelligence community’s analysis, which is evidence-based. And the evidence does not conclusively point to any one theory.

“We don’t just take information or just take sentiment and turn it into analysis,” he said. “We’re actually doing a rigorous process and that’s why we don’t know yet. The evidence is not there.”


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