Declassified US intelligence report on COVID-19's origins says both natural transmission and lab leak theories remain 'plausible'

A declassified US intelligence report on the coronavirus' origin found that both the natural transmission and lab leak theories remain "plausible."

The report, released by the Director of National Intelligence on Friday, details the findings from an investigation that President Joe Biden ordered in May.

"All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident," the report said.

Although the report did not favor one theory over the other, it did come to several other important conclusions. First, most of the authors said the coronavirus wasn't genetically engineered, nor developed as a bioweapon. Second, the analysts think Chinese officials were unaware of the virus' spread before the first cluster of COVID-19 cases were reported in Wuhan in December 2019.

Evidence for a lab accident

Wuhan Institute of Virology

The report suggested, with moderate confidence, that the first human infection could have been the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or virus sampling at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Proponents of the lab-leak theory often focus on that institute, since it's a high-level biosafety lab where scientists studied coronaviruses before the pandemic. Eighteen scientists published a letter in May saying they thought the lab-leak theory remained viable.

The analysts behind the new government report wrote that they consider biosafety conditions at the institute to be "inadequate." That makes the possibility of an accident more likely, especially given that research associated with the institute had involved handling animals that could be coronavirus carriers.

However, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, has worked directly with WIV researchers and previously told Insider an accident there would be "highly unlikely."

Mazet added that she and the WIV staff developed and implemented a "very stringent safety protocol."

Dr. Shi Zhengli wears a hazmat suit while at work in a secure laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017.
Chinese virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli at work in a secure laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017. Barcroft Media/Getty Images

The new report suggests that if the virus did emerge from a lab, the leak was accidental. Chinese scientists "probably were unaware in the initial months that such an incident had occurred," the report says.

Virologists at the institute were among the first to start studying the new coronavirus, and publicly shared its genetic code in early January. Such activities, the analysts add, "are a strong indicator that the WIV lacked foreknowledge of the virus."

Proponents of the lab-accident theory also often point to a report found by The Wall Street Journal that revealed three WIV staff members got sick and went to a hospital more than a month before experts identified the first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan. The report said the workers' symptoms were "consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness."

But the new report says that's insufficient evidence: "Even if confirmed, hospital admission alone would not be diagnostic of COVID-19 infection," it says.

Not a bioweapon

wuhan institute of virology
An aerial view of the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China's Hubei province on May 27, 2020. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

The reason the analysts behind the report don't think the coronavirus was purposefully engineered is that its genetic code has no tell-tale hallmarks of manipulation.

A March 2020 study analyzed the virus' DNA and concluded that it "is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus." And investigators from the World Health Organization found no evidence the WIV stored virus samples prior to the pandemic that, when combined, could have produced the new coronavirus.

The report also concluded that the virus is not a biological weapon, saying that theory is only "supported by scientifically invalid claims" from people who are "suspected of spreading disinformation."

Did the virus jump from bats?

The WHO investigators who traveled to Wuhan could not rule out a lab leak, either. But they concluded that the coronavirus most likely spilled over to people from animals - possibly at wildlife farms in southern China.

china rabbit farm
A farmer checks rabbits at his farm on January 29, 2021 in Chongqing, China. Qu Mingbin/VCG via Getty

The new report, similarly, says that a lab leak is "less likely than an infection occurring through numerous hunters, farmers, merchants, and others who have frequent, natural contact with animals."

That kind of spillover has been the leading theory throughout the pandemic, primarily because 75% of new infectious diseases come to us from animals. Plus, the coronavirus' genetic code is very similar to that of other coronaviruses found in bats.

Still, the WHO team examined 80,000 animals from 31 provinces across China and didn't find a single case of this coronavirus. China shut down the wildlife farms in question in February 2020, though, and researchers weren't given access to samples from them.

China's cooperation is needed

WHO wuhan
Members of the World Health Organization's team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021. Kyodo News/Getty

The authors of the new report said they can't determine the coronavirus' origin unless they get more information from China, which would require the country to be more cooperative and transparent than it has been.

Even the WHO investigators weren't given full access to the WIV's files, databases, freezer inventories, records, or safety logs. That led Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, to say he did "not believe that this assessment was extensive enough."

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