Origins of COVID-19: New theory leads to more confusion
Is it from a lab? Is it transmitted by animals? Anything else? Surely in time the answer will become clear
“We want to know what led to this so we can hopefully try and prevent something like this from happening in the future.”
These words by Dr. David Relman, an infectious disease expert and microbiologist at Stanford University, echo the national conversation surrounding the origins of COVID-19 in 2021.
Is it from a lab? Is it zoonotic transfer? Anything else? Surely in time the answer will become clear.
But now, three years after the start of the pandemic, which still disrupts our daily lives, the US is only adding more uncertainty about what really happened in Wuhan in late 2019. The Department has assessed that the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely stemmed from a laboratory leak in China, according to a recently updated classified intelligence report first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Sunday.
Still, two sources said the department assessed in the intelligence report that there was a “low probability” that the coronavirus accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Natasha Bertrand reported.
The US Department of Energy assesses that Covid-19 likely resulted from a lab leak, furthering the US intel divide over the origins of the virus https://t.co/5qpPojjZPF pic.twitter.com/UyYqiHoWfQ
— CNN (@CNN) February 26, 2023
Intelligence agencies may make low, medium, or high probability assessments; and a low confidence rating usually means that the information obtained is not reliable enough or is too fragmented to make a firmer analytical judgment, or that there is not enough information available to make a firmer conclusion.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged that the intelligence community is divided on the issue, while noting that President Joe Biden has committed resources to getting to the bottom of the origin question.
The intelligence community has been divided on the issue for years.
In 2021, the intelligence community declassified a report that showed four agencies rated with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans naturally in the wild. It is assumed with medium confidence that the pandemic resulted from a laboratory accident.
The Department of Energy now says COVID-19 likely originated with a lab leak. In June 2021, @KatherineEban investigated the origins question for @VanityFair, and discovered that toxic politics and hidden agendas may have obscured the truth https://t.co/QjgD6ghBHq
— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) February 26, 2023
The lab accident theory is gaining ground
For much of 2020, proponents of the lab leak theory had to fight off claims that they were xenophobic or racist — thanks in part to the anti-China rhetoric of then-President Donald Trump, who readily embraced the theory.
An investigation launched by Trump’s State Department that sought to examine whether China’s biological weapons program may have had a larger role in the origin of the Wuhan pandemic was shut down early in Biden’s administration.
A letter from public health experts published in February 2020 in The Lancet, an influential scientific journal, also sounded early, declaring that the virus had a natural origin.
But the lab incident theory has gained traction over time, especially after reports that the intelligence community had found evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had fallen seriously ill with a mystery virus in November 2019 — though it’s unclear whether have contracted COVID-19, and no further evidence has emerged to support this report.
By July 2021, senior Biden administration officials overseeing intelligence on the origins believed that the lab leak theory was at least as credible as the possibility that the virus had occurred naturally in the wild—a dramatic shift from a year earlier. when Democrats publicly downplayed such an idea.
An American government department has abruptly changed its stance on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, concluding it likely came from a laboratory leak. https://t.co/wsYS28joYk
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) February 26, 2023
“Not a definitive answer”
The latest intelligence assessment was provided to Congress as Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed for further investigation into the theory while accusing the Biden administration of downplaying its possibility.
The Speaker of the House of Foreign Affairs, Michael McCall, said he was “pleased” that the Department of Energy had “finally come to the same conclusion that I had already come to”. (The Texas Republican released a 2021 report that concluded the “preponderance of evidence” showed the pandemic originated from a Wuhan lab leak.)
“Now is the time for the entire Biden administration to join the Department of Energy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the vast majority of Americans in publicly concluding what common sense told us at the beginning – the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan , China,” McCall said in a statement.
Sullivan said Biden ordered the national laboratories, which are part of the Department of Energy, to be included in the assessment.
“There is no definitive answer from the intelligence community on this right now,” Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash.
So where does that leave us? Not far from where we started.
Previous pandemics have arisen from natural transmission through animals, and it often takes months or years to discover the host through which the virus passed as it adapted to infect humans. In some cases, as with Ebola, the original natural source has never been identified.
So why does it matter where COVID-19 comes from?
As Relman, the Stanford microbiologist, told CNN, finding the answer could help prevent the next pandemic.