The lab leak is back in the news as a U.S. intelligence agency alters its assessment to state that the coronavirus likely originated from a laboratory leak.
The Department of Energy Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence is considered authoritative by many as it is involved in biological threats, overseeing a network of 17 laboratories encompassing research in advanced biology, as well as managing the safety of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The FBI is the only other U.S. intelligence agency to conclude that the lab leak is the most likely scenario. A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified in October 2021 stated that “one IC [Intelligence Community] element assesses with moderate confidence that COVID-19 most likely resulted from a laboratory associated incident involving WIV or other researchers — either through exposure to the virus during experiments or through sampling”. This element was subsequently identified by the New York Times as the FBI.
U.S. officials on Monday declined to give details on the fresh intelligence and analysis that led the Energy Department to change its position. They added that while the Energy Department and the FBI each says an unintended lab leak is most likely, they arrived at those conclusions for different reasons.
Four other agencies in the U.S. still believe that the pandemic was a result of natural zoonotic spillover and two others are undecided, according to the Wall Street Journal. One of the agencies that remains undecided is understood to be the CIA.
Asked about the latest report on CNN on Sunday, Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser, acknowledged that a variety of views are held by the U.S. intelligence community on the origins of the pandemic.
Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other, and a number have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure… Right now there is not a definitive answer to emerge from the intelligence community.
Gilles Demaneuf of DRASTIC spotted back in December that a footnote to the report by the House Intelligence Committee on the Intelligence Community’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak noted that at least one intelligence agency had revised its assessment since the above-mentioned ‘Biden report’ that was declassified in October 2021.
From the latest reports, this agency appears to be the Department of Energy Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Demaneuf links the change in its assessment to the publication of the DEFUSE funding proposal by DRASTIC in September 2021, which detailed a 2018 plan by U.S. and Chinese researchers to find bat-borne coronaviruses in the wild and insert their spike proteins into existing bat coronaviruses to make them infectious to humans.
But how significant is the changed assessment, really? With most intelligence agencies still apparently favouring a natural origin, the Energy Department only having low confidence in a lab leak, no fresh intelligence or analysis being published and the FBI and Energy Department coming to the conclusion for “different reasons”, the one thing that is for sure is that U.S. intelligence does not have anything approaching definitive proof of a lab leak that it is secretly sitting on (or if it does it is making a good show of not having it).
It’s also worth noting that the FBI’s assessment of “moderate confidence” of a lab leak was said not to involve any engineered viruses but only the leak of natural viruses stored in the lab. This implies it placed no weight on evidence of manipulation or engineering of viruses. The Senate minority staff report on Covid origins from October 2022 stressed alleged evidence of safety issues and poor safety practices at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and this may be the evidence the FBI was relying on in its assessment. Whether the Energy Department’s newly revised assessment for “different reasons” is based on evidence of manipulation of viruses is unclear as the report has not been made public.
But in any case, as I have noted previously, while the evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is an engineered virus is compelling – it has no known animal reservoirs despite extensive searching, it is well-adapted to humans in its earliest recorded cases with no signs of the early genetic diversity that such adaptation would produce, and it is unusually contagious by virtue of having, among other things, a furin cleavage site, which is unknown in SARS-like viruses but often added by scientists to increase infectiousness – the evidence that it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in particular is missing.
There is no evidence the WIV was working on SARS-CoV-2 or a precursor to it (and no reason to hide it before the pandemic), and it’s clear the Chinese did not behave in December and January as you would expect if they already knew a highly infectious engineered virus from their lab was on the loose. Senior WIV researcher Dr. Shi Zhengli swiftly published the virus genome in January 2020 alongside that of RaTG13, the closest known virus (at the time) to SARS-CoV-2, and drew attention to the similarities and the fact that it is unlikely the novel virus emerged naturally from the sampled virus.
When in April 2020 leading U.S. virologist Dr. Ralph Baric appeared to point the blame at Dr. Shi Zhengli’s lab in a Newsweek report, she shot back an email to him, now in the public domain, pointing out (correctly) that the earlier work manipulating coronaviruses was done in his lab, not hers. She claimed to have been transparent with all her research.
While we obviously shouldn’t take her word for it on this, it’s fair to say that her team was relatively quick to publish details about the new virus in early 2020, whereas U.S. scientists have consistently failed to cooperate with all investigations into virus origins. Jeffrey Sachs even disbanded the Covid origins taskforce which formed part of the Lancet Covid commission he was chairing, perceiving severe conflicts of interest among the U.S. scientists involved and a basic lack of cooperation.
The latest shift to a “low confidence” assessment by the Energy Department for unstated reasons changes nothing about what we know. The timing would even make the cynical wonder if it was done more to increase diplomatic pressure on China as it looks set to provide lethal aid to Russia.
As I see it, the most pressing question on Covid origins – which could be answered without any cooperation from China at all – is what the U.S. is hiding by all its obfuscation and refusal to cooperate or investigate. The fact that U.S. intelligence analysts claimed to have been tracking the virus since November 2019, despite it being plain that the outbreak was not detectable at the time, have given many cause for suspicions about how the U.S. knew about the outbreak at that point. How this engineered virus came to be in Wuhan remains as much of a mystery as ever, but as long as the U.S. maintains its wall of silence on investigating origins, the suspicions of the world will fall not only on China.
A recap of our recent series on the origins of the virus and the potential role of the United States.
- “How Did U.S. Intelligence Spot the Virus in Wuhan Weeks Before China?” – Looks at what the U.S. knew and when.
- “U.S. Accidentally Proves It Could Not Have Spotted the Virus in China in November 2019” – Revisits the Harvard study that claimed to back up the claims of U.S. intelligence to have detected the outbreak in November 2019.
- “U.S. Government Identified as Original Source of Lab Leak Theory. What’s Really Going On?” – Unpicks the activity of U.S. intelligence and Government officials in relation to the lab leak theory.
- “Why the Lab Leak Theory is Almost Certainly False” – Makes the case for an engineered virus but against a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
- “Does China’s ‘Cover-Up’ of the Lab Leak Betray its Guilt?” – Rebuts claims that the Chinese engaged in an incriminating cover-up from the beginning of 2020.
Plus two posts on the evidence of early spread around the world in late 2019.
- “The Evidence COVID-19 Was Spreading Silently Around the World in Late 2019” – Overview of the early spread evidence and what it means for the behaviour of the virus.
- “How We Know it Started in Wuhan” – Why, despite the evidence of early spread globally since at least November 2019, the virus likely first emerged in Wuhan.