U.S. Intelligence Agencies: Covid-19 Not a Biological Weapon, but Lab Incident Still on the Table

U.S. Intelligence Agencies: Covid-19 Not a Biological Weapon, but Lab Incident Still on the Table
Photo: WPA Pool, Getty Images

In a Friday afternoon news dump, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released an unclassified summary of its report on the origins of covid-19, which concludes that the deadly virus was not created as a biological weapon but does not rule out the possibility that its spread was due to a research-related incident.

“After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC [intelligence community] remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19,” the report’s summary reads. “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”

The summary will likely do little to quell the rampant conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of covid-19, which the IC says infected its first human no later than November 2019. The lack of consensus on covid-19’s origin is due to a lack of information provided by the People’s Republic of China, according to the summary, which President Joe Biden characterised in a related statement as reckless.

According to the released summary, the intelligence community has “low confidence” in its assessment that the initial transmission of the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, most likely occurred through “natural exposure to an animal” infected with SARS-CoV-2 or a virus that’s 99% similar to it.

The intelligence agencies have “moderate confidence,” however, in the assessment that covid-19 first spread in a research-related incident “probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

The summary states that those involved in the assessment, which included four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council, do not believe that China’s government “had foreknowledge” of the virus prior to its initial spread.

As for the question of whether the virus was genetically modified, the agencies involved in the investigation are divided. “Most” of the agencies believe it is unlikely SARS-CoV-2 was genetically modified, the summary says, while two of the agencies believe there is a lack of “sufficient evidence” to make an assessment.

The DNI says intelligence agencies will need China to provide more information related to the origins of the covid-19 pandemic in order to confidently draw a conclusion. “The IC — and the global scientific community — lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases,” the summary says.

In a statement released to coincide with the DNI’s report, Biden lamented China’s limiting access to information, warning that “pandemics do not respect international borders.”

“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[s] to rise.”

The scientific community has similarly not found consensus on covid-19’s likeliest origins. Circumstantial evidence exists for both the natural human-to-animal transmission theory and the lab-accident theory. In March 2021, the World Health Organisation assessed it a report that it was “possible-to-likely” that covid-19 was first transmitted zoologically, from animal to human, while it pegged the possibility that the virus was introduced in a laboratory incident “extremely unlikely.”

The devastating impact of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the politicisation of the virus and medical protections against it, racist and xenophobic sentiments hurled at China and Asian Americans by people supporting the lab-leak theory, and the conspicuous lack of information provided by China’s government has created a festering situation that will likely not abate anytime soon. Still, Biden has vowed that the U.S. government will continue to investigate what caused the historic outbreak.

“The United States will continue working with like-minded partners around the world to press the PRC to fully share information and to cooperate with the World Health Organisation’s Phase II evidence-based, expert-led determination into the origins of COVID-19 — including by providing access to all relevant data and evidence,” Biden said. “We will also continue to press the PRC to adhere to scientific norms and standards, including sharing information and data from the earliest days of the pandemic, protocols related to biosafety, and information from animal populations. We must have a full and transparent accounting of this global tragedy. Nothing less is acceptable.”

Regardless of covid-19’s origins, the virus continues to spread, particularly among unvaccinated people. This week, hospitals in the U.S. recorded more than 100,000 people hospitalised with covid-19, and the U.S. has a seven-day average of more than 1,200 covid-19-related deaths per day, according to the New York Times tracker, the highest since March.