WASHINGTON – Without further information from China on the earliest cases or new scientific discoveries about the nature of the virus, American intelligence agencies are unlikely to be able to draw a firm conclusion about the origin of the novel coronavirus, according to a newly released intelligence report released on became Friday.
President Biden ordered the country’s intelligence services in May to conduct a 90-day investigation into the origins of the pandemic. When the key findings of this review were released in August, they did not give a single answer and instead reiterated the authorities’ longstanding position: the theory that the virus appeared naturally and the theory that it accidentally emerged in a laboratory, were both plausible.
However, Friday’s report reiterated that the evidence to support both conclusions was thin and that US intelligence agencies knew far too little about the origin of the virus. The secret service has concluded that the virus was not designed as a biological weapon.
Analysts “judge that both a natural origin and a laboratory-related incident are plausible hypotheses for how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans,” the report says. “However, analysts disagree as to what is more likely or whether an assessment can be made at all.”
Four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council consider the natural causes theory to be more plausible. One agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, supports the laboratory leak theory. But none of these agencies have given the director of national intelligence or the White House a highly trustworthy assessment that shows the doubts that continue to swirl around the issue.
The intelligence services have broadly come to the conclusion that the virus that causes Covid-19 was not intentionally developed in a laboratory. But even this conclusion is drawn with little confidence. Some genetic engineering methods make it difficult to identify modifications, especially in view of existing gaps in knowledge about the variety of naturally occurring coronaviruses.
“Some genetic engineering techniques could make genetically engineered viruses indistinguishable from natural viruses, according to scientific journal articles,” the report said.
According to the intelligence report, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had previously made chimeras or combinations of coronaviruses that did not occur in nature. But that record provides little information on whether the virus that causes Covid has been genetically modified, the report said.
Some Republican lawmakers have picked up on this so-called function enhancement work at the institute, arguing that it underpins laboratory leak theory. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this week, Ohio Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup called for a closer look at the Institute’s work on creating chimeras.
“In this case, that means experimentally combining components of two viruses into one to make it more contagious to the general public,” said Wenstrup, who has called for more hearings on the origin of the pandemic. “I can’t be sure if Covid-19 was caused by a research accident or an infection during a test drive, but I’m 100 percent sure there was a massive cover-up.”
The National Institutes of Health said the Wuhan chimera experiments were based on coronaviruses, which weren’t the precursors to the virus that causes Covid.
There is broad consensus within the Biden government that China has not disclosed everything about the origins of the outbreak. The intelligence report released on Friday called for more transparency from China, saying Beijing must release information about possible intermediate species the virus may have infected before it spread to humans, what it knows about the nature of the first human infections, and more data on research of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
However, the report also made it clear that Chinese officials were initially surprised on some matters. American intelligence analysts have criticized the fact that Chinese officials only knew of the existence of the novel corona virus after the detection of Covid in the population and isolation by the Wuhan Institute.
“If the pandemic was based on a laboratory-related incident, they probably did not know for the first few months that such an incident had occurred,” the report says.
The report also suggested that researchers at the Wuhan Institute were unaware of the virus until the outbreak broke, as they quickly turned to work on Covid as the outbreak worsened. The new report drew heavily on the apparent surprise of Chinese officials and researchers at the Wuhan Institute when the pandemic worsened to back up the natural causes theory.
The wide range of animals susceptible to the Covid virus and the different ways in which people in China come into contact with these animals – including trade, agriculture, sale, and rescue – make it possible for it to be transmitted naturally.
While no animal source was found, “Analysts who judge the pandemic to be due to natural causes note that many previous zoonotic outbreaks have taken years to identify animal sources and in some cases no animal sources have been identified”. Report said.
On the flip side, analysts who supported the laboratory leak theory also failed to find a smoking weapon. Instead, they highlighted that previous coronavirus work at the Wuhan Institute was carried out under “inadequate biosafety conditions that could have created opportunities for a laboratory-related incident.”
The report said some of the closest known relatives of the virus that causes Covid were found in bats from Yunnan Province. Researchers bringing samples to Wuhan could “establish a plausible link between these habitats and the city.”
“These analysts determine that it is plausible that researchers unknowingly exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, which may have resulted in an asymptomatic or mild infection,” the report said.
However, scientists have estimated that the viruses identified in Yunnan differed from the ancestors of SARS-CoV-2 40 years ago. Other viruses found in Laos are much more similar in some of their genes, and scientists expect further research to reveal even more closely related coronaviruses in bats.
Carl room Reporting contributed.