February 27, 2023
SINGAPORE – New intelligence has prompted the United States Energy Department to conclude that an accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the Covid-19 pandemic, although US spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus, US officials said on Sunday.
The conclusion was a change from the department’s earlier position that it was undecided on how the virus emerged.
Some officials briefed on the intelligence said that it was relatively weak and that the Energy Department’s conclusion was made with “low confidence”, suggesting its level of certainty was not high. While the department shared the information with other agencies, none of them changed their conclusions, officials said.
Officials would not disclose what the intelligence was. But many of the Energy Department’s insights come from the network of national laboratories it oversees, rather than more traditional forms of intelligence like spy networks or communication intercepts.
Intelligence officials believe the scrutiny of the pandemic’s beginnings could be important to improving global response to future health crises, although they caution that finding an answer about the source of the virus may be difficult or even impossible given Chinese opposition to further research.
Scientists say there is a responsibility to explain how a pandemic that has killed almost seven million people started, and learning more about its origins could help researchers understand what poses the biggest threats of future outbreaks.
The new intelligence and the shift in the department’s view were first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Sunday.
Mr Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, declined to confirm the intelligence. But he said President Joe Biden had ordered that the national labs be brought into the effort to determine the origin of the outbreak so that the government was using “every tool” it had.
In addition to the Energy Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has also concluded, with moderate confidence, that the virus first emerged accidentally from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese lab that worked on coronaviruses.
At least four other intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council have concluded, with low confidence, that the virus most likely emerged through natural transmission, the director of the national intelligence’s office announced in October 2021.
Mr Sullivan said those divisions remain.
“There is a variety of views in the intelligence community,” he told CNN on Sunday. “Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other. A number of them have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure.”
He said if more information was learnt, the administration would report it to Congress and the public. “But right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question,” he said.
Some scientists believe that the current evidence, including virus genes, points to a large food and live animal market in Wuhan as the most likely place the coronavirus emerged.
Chinese officials have repeatedly called the lab leak hypothesis a lie that has no basis in science and is politically motivated.
Early in the Biden administration, the President ordered the intelligence agencies to investigate the pandemic’s origins, after criticism of a World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the matter. While there was material that had not been thoroughly examined by intelligence officials, the review ultimately did not yield any new consensus inside the agencies.
The March 2021 report by the WHO said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus emerged accidentally from a lab. But China appointed half the scientists who wrote the report and exerted major control over it. US officials have been largely dismissive of that work.
The intelligence agencies have said they do not believe there is any evidence that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was created deliberately as a biological weapon. But they have said that whether it emerged naturally, perhaps from a market in Wuhan, or escaped accidentally from a lab is the subject of legitimate debate.
Leaders of the intelligence community are set to brief Congress on March 8 and 9 as part of annual hearings on global threats. NYTIMES