According to a declassified summary released Friday afternoon, a new U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19 drew no definitive conclusions but left open the possibility that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
That in itself is notable, given that, until recently, the lab-leak hypothesis had been largely dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
According to the “declassified key takeaways” issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community broadly assessed that the COVID-19 virus likely first appeared in Wuhan no later than November 2019, emerged without the foreknowledge of Chinese authorities, and was not developed as a bioweapon. Most agencies also agreed, though with “low confidence,” that the virus “probably was not genetically engineered,” though two agencies believed they did not have enough evidence to conclude that. But intelligence agencies split over the likeliest explanation for how it made the leap to humans, with the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies favoring a natural origin, one favoring a lab leak of some kind, and three undecided.
“One [intelligence community] element assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” the summary stated.
For over a year into the pandemic, numerous prominent scientists insisted that the virus originated in a bat, then likely jumped to some intermediate animal before materializing in Wuhan. Anyone arguing otherwise, some suggested, was promoting destructive conspiracies and feeding an alarming rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. That consensus began to crumble earlier this year, in response to several factors. Among them: the failure to identify a host animal for the virus; mounting reports of risky research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV); the revelation that laboratory workers there fell ill with COVID-like symptoms and sought hospital treatment before the onset of the pandemic; and the Chinese government’s continued refusal to release key data. In June, Vanity Fair exposed the fight within the U.S. government over a lab-leak investigation.
CNN reported Wednesday that certain intelligence agencies were still switching their assessments just days before the report was completed, and according to the summary, “All agencies assess that [the] two hypotheses are plausible.” It’s also worth noting that the natural-emergence and lab-leak theories aren’t mutually exclusive. The SARS-CoV-2 strain could have come from a bat sample collected in a cave, which could in turn have infected a field or laboratory worker.
The agencies found no smoking gun pointing to a lab leak. But they did review a cache of scientific evidence: viral sequences that could contain clues as to the origin and timing of the virus’ emergence. According to one scientist with knowledge of the probe, the agencies were looking for “unique identifying bits” of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence that may have predated the emergence of the pandemic. But the sheer volume of sequences offered the scientific equivalent of a haystack in which a needle may or may not be hidden.
Even finding a match wouldn’t necessarily establish whether that sample came from nature or a laboratory, unless the sequence happened to be accompanied by data indicating when and where it was obtained.
This report does not rule out the possibility that COVID-19 was genetically engineered, unlike the Office of the Director of National Intelligence statement on April 30, 2020, about four months into the outbreak, which said: “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
For months, even credible figures who raised the possibility of a lab leak were met with almost universal scorn. One of those was Jamie Metzl, a former executive vice president of the Asia Society who sits on the World Health Organization’s advisory committee on human genome editing, and served in the Bill Clinton administration as the National Security Council’s director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs.
In November 2020, Metzl wrote to David Quammen, a foremost science journalist and author of the influential book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, sharing a scientific paper that posited a laboratory origin, based on some of the unusual features of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence.
Quammen wrote back to Metzl, “I want to understand why, in addition to evidence or the absence of evidence, these theories have such appeal. In connection with that, a question, and I don’t mean it to be coy, merely curious: Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK? Or not?”
In an email to Vanity Fair, Quammen wrote that both scenarios—of multiple assassins shooting at Kennedy, and that of COVID-19 leaking from a lab—were fundamentally more dramatic than the alternatives. “I wondered genuinely whether there was any correlation between adherents to the respective scenarios,” he said.
While Metzl certainly didn’t appreciate Quammen’s implication, there is a growing chance that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could wind up being a 21st-century successor to the grassy knoll, the spot near the site of President Kennedy’s assassination where reports of gunfire led to the unproven theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. That’s because, with U.S. intelligence agencies divided and biological signals degrading, it is possible that we may never know where COVID-19 originated.
The summary report issued Friday made clear that the intelligence agencies have come up against the limit of what is knowable, “unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged.”
One of the main obstacles to a full accounting was and remains the unwillingness of China’s authoritarian government, which vociferously denies that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, to conduct or facilitate a transparent investigation.
Under international health regulations in effect since 2007, the 194 World Health Organization member states must notify it of all “events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern.” Unexpected cases of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) would trigger that reporting requirement, according to the regulations.
But as far back as 2012, China failed to meet its obligation under that standard. In 2012, six miners were sent to clean an abandoned mine shaft in Yunnan province and fell gravely ill, after days of shoveling bat guano. Three of them died, the cases drawing keen interest from Chinese scientists. But the Chinese government never reported the incident to the WHO, a spokesperson there confirmed to Vanity Fair.
A bat sample from that mine shaft, sequenced by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was 96.2% similar to the SARS-CoV-2 sequence, and is its closest known progenitor. But those facts, among others, have only emerged due to the efforts of independent scientists, some of them doing research in a group they call DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated objective was to solve the riddle of COVID-19’s origin.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Chinese government has seemed to do everything in its power to suppress crucial facts. It denied early on that there was evidence that the virus was transmissible between humans, ordered laboratory samples destroyed, muzzled scientists, and claimed the right to review any scientific research about COVID-19 ahead of publication. As the pandemic spread across the world, the international science community failed to recognize that China seemed to be forcing its own scientists to play with a different set of rules.
Early on, WIV scientists promised to send COVID-19 isolates to scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston laboratory, which had trained and collaborated with some of the institute’s scientists. But the samples never arrived, according to State Department emails from April 2020 obtained by Vanity Fair. “Chinese government officials took control of the process, and UTMB learned in early February 2020 that Chinese authorities decided not to share the isolates,” said a University of Texas Medical Branch spokesperson.
That the Chinese government sought to conceal the virus’s virulence and early spread is widely accepted (though that doesn’t necessarily mean it did so in order to hide a lab leak). But the extent, depth, and nature of the cover-up is still coming into view. In February, following a fact-finding mission to China, an international team of experts working with the World Health Organization issued a report on COVID-19’s origins that called the laboratory hypothesis “extremely unlikely.” But just two weeks ago, the head of that team, a Danish scientist named Peter Ben Embarek, acknowledged that the report’s wording resulted from a backchannel deal he made with his Chinese counterpart: The lab-leak possibility could be included in the final report, so long as no further investigation of it was recommended.
The intelligence report is almost certain to renew international calls for the Chinese government to release crucial information that could shed light on COVID-19’s origins. That includes: laboratory notebooks from the WIV, which did extensive and risky research into bat coronaviruses; medical records of WIV laboratory workers, a number of whom are believed to have been sickened before the official onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; the main database of the viral sequences maintained at the WIV’s laboratories, which was taken offline without explanation in the fall of 2019.
“I don’t think the global community is ever going to know until the Chinese start talking,” said James LeDuc, former director of the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas.
But David Relman, M.D., a Stanford University microbiologist, expressed optimism that the truth would eventually be uncovered and must still be pursued: “It’s like a hairball,” he said. “You pull on a thread.… There are ways of sorting these things out.”
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