Intelligence agencies say COVID origins unknown

This general view shows the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China on Feb. 3, as members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, visit. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

WASHINGTON — After a 90-day sprint for answers, U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over whether the coronavirus started from a lab-related incident or spread naturally from an animal to a human, and say the origins of the pandemic may never be known, according to an unclassified version of a report on the review.

The intelligence community is united in the belief that the emergence of the coronavirus surprised Beijing in the winter of 2019, when it was first detected.

President Joe Biden ordered the three-month probe in May, leading to a hunt by U.S. intelligence agencies to solve one of the central questions of the pandemic.

A classified version of the report was submitted to the president on Tuesday. Leadership and oversight committees in Congress have also been briefed.

The unclassified report states that COVID-19 initially likely emerged in infected humans in small-scale exposure incidents starting no later than November 2019, and that the first major clusters occurred in Wuhan, China, a month later.

Four agencies within the intelligence community, and the National Intelligence Council, came to a low-confidence assessment that the virus most likely spread naturally from animals. One agency assessed with moderate confidence that it was more likely the result of a laboratory incident.

All parts of the intelligence community came to broad agreement that the coronavirus disease known as SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon, and that Chinese officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before it emerged in the population, the report says.

They also agree, with a low level of confidence, that it is unlikely the virus was genetically engineered.

Intelligence agencies also agreed that China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins — an unlikely outcome, the report says, with agencies concluding that China itself is uncertain about where a thorough investigation might lead.

Agencies operating under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence consulted throughout the 90-day period with outside academic experts, and brought an epidemiologist into the National Intelligence Council to vet their theories.

Members of Congress will receive a classified briefing on the intelligence findings.

Scientists originally believed the pandemic virus most likely jumped naturally from an animal to humans in late 2019. But information emerged that raised the alternative as a possibility.

Three scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which conducts research on coronaviruses, were hospitalized with an illness that baffled and alarmed experts in November 2019.

The following month, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention moved to a new location in Wuhan near a wet market that experienced the first known outbreak. Videos released by Chinese state-run media that month show Chinese CDC scientists capturing bats in caves without full protective equipment.

The World Health Organization has been conducting its own review into the origins of COVID-19, but the probe has stalled, with the Chinese government refusing to provide raw data on the virus’s initial spread in Wuhan.

China has also rejected a proposal by WHO to expand its inquiry into lab activity in Wuhan.

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