COVID-19 origin: US intelligence rules out lab leak theory

  • SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was not developed as a biological weapon, a report by the United States Intelligence Community concludes.
  • An unclassified summary of the report reveals that most of the intelligence agencies also believe the virus was not genetically engineered.
  • However, one agency believes it is likely that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a laboratory that handled coronaviruses.
  • But, according to four elements of the Intelligence Community and the National Intelligence Council, natural exposure to an animal with the virus was the most likely cause of the outbreak.
  • President Joe Biden accuses China of withholding crucial information that could help reveal the pandemic’s origins and prevent future pandemics.

The U.S. Intelligence Community has given credence to the idea — once dismissed as a conspiracy theory — that the first human SARS-CoV-2 infection arose from an incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

The outbreak that began in the city of Wuhan in December 2019 has gone on to claim over 4.5 million lives worldwide.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

An unclassified summary of a report by the Intelligence Community was published last week.

It reveals that one element of the community assesses with “moderate confidence” that the first infection “most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

However, the report shows that due to a lack of clinical and epidemiological data on the first cases of COVID-19, U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided about the origins of the virus.

According to the summary, the National Intelligence Council and four elements of the Intelligence Community assessed with “low confidence” that the first infection resulted from natural exposure to an animal with the virus.

The report is clear on one point, though: that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon.

Most of the agencies believe with “low confidence” that the virus was also not the result of genetic engineering. However, two agencies judge that there is insufficient evidence either way.

The summary concludes:

“China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”

In a statement, President Joe Biden said government officials in China had denied international investigators and the global public health community access to critical information about the pandemic’s origins.

“To this day, the [People’s Republic of China] continues to reject calls for transparency and [to] withhold information, even as the toll of this pandemic continues to rise,” the statement reads.

However, responding on Twitter to the intelligence report, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, Zheng Zeguang, said:

“The United States ordered its intelligence agents instead of virologists to trace COVID-19 origins but still came up with nothing. It is time they stop the unwarranted and repetitive accusations against China.”

Regardless of the political controversy, there remain two major alternative theories of how the pandemic began: the “overspill” theory and the “lab leak” theory.

Overspill theory 

Experts have found viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats and pangolins.

However, genetic sequencing research suggests the lineage of viruses that gave rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating in bats for decades.

Another study found the genetic adaptations that allowed the virus to jump from bats to humans occurred many years ago.

As a result, the researchers concluded that its transition to humans was relatively easy.

Most virologists assume there was an intermediate host between bats and humans, but investigators have yet to determine its identity.

In March 2020, a correspondence article in Nature Medicine comparing the genomes of coronaviruses in a wide range of animal species concluded SARS-CoV-2 “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

However, the analysis was unable to determine the identity of a possible intermediate host.

Many assume the culprit was a pangolin, an animal that may or may not have been on sale at the Huanan “wet market,” where the virus could have caused an infection in the first human host.

But a co-author of the study, Professor Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney in Australia, has stressed on Twitter that the research did not detect SARS-CoV-2 in pangolins, only a relative of the virus.

He said the identity of the intermediate host was still uncertain.

According to an analysis in The Lancet, 27 of the first 41 COVID-19 patients had direct exposure to the market. But the first known individual with the illness, detected on December 1, 2019, had not been to the market.

Lab leak theory

An unnamed source told CNN that the Intelligence Community, as part of its investigation, sifted through a trove of genetic sequences of viruses linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Gene-sequencing machines upload vast amounts of data to cloud storage sites, which researchers can then remotely access and analyze.

Robert Garry, a virologist from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, told Nature that the failure of the intelligence report to draw any firm conclusions about the origins of the virus suggests they drew a blank.

He says it suggests they did not find a SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence in the part of the trove that pre-dated the start of the outbreak.

In addition, he says their inconclusive report also implies they did not find a very similar sequence. If they had, it would suggest that researchers at the lab tweaked the sequence of an existing virus to create SARS-CoV-2.

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