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Report: Intelligence community divided on whether COVID originated naturally or from lab leak

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An unclassified version of an intelligence community assessment on the origins of COVID-19 released Friday afternoon shows that various agencies still don’t agree on whether the pandemic began from a laboratory incident in Wuhan, China, or was caused by a natural crossover from animals to humans.

In the spring, President Biden ordered the intelligence community to conduct a 90-day review looking at the pandemic’s origins in China, amid growing debate and questions on the issue. The virus has now killed some 5 million people around the world, and infected almost a quarter of a billion, while disrupting global economies.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

“After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19,” states the report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”

The report, however, appears to discount the idea that the virus was engineered in a laboratory as a weapon. “Most IC analysts assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically engineered,” the report states.

The intelligence community also appears largely skeptical that the virus, even if it did escape from a lab, was the result of what is known as “gain-of-function” research, in which scientists boost a virus’s capabilities in order to study its behavior. Yet even on this point, analysts at the various agencies appear uncertain.

“No IC analysts assess that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of laboratory adaptation, although some analysts do not have enough information to make this determination,” the report states.

In recent months, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top scientific adviser on the coronavirus, has faced Republican criticism about the funding provided to the Chinese laboratory in Wuhan from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he heads. The claim made by Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is that NIH helped enable gain-of-function research that could have started the pandemic. Fauci has argued that the work the lab conducted with those funds did not meet the criteria for gain-of-function research.

Anthony Fauci
Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. (J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Getty Images)

While noting the lack of consensus among intelligence experts, the report is also likely to give new life to those who have long argued that a laboratory leak of the coronavirus should be considered as a possibility. That theory, once dismissed by some as fringe, appears to have some strong support among one unidentified part of the intelligence community.

“One IC element assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident,” the report reads, “probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Yahoo News first reported in April 2020 that the intelligence community was looking at the possibility that the virus had escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

The U.S. intelligence community analysts employ what’s known as “confidence assessments” to convey to policymakers and others within the national security bureaucracy how assured they are of their conclusions.

“High confidence” judgments are generally taken to be based on high-quality information or intelligence. “Moderate confidence” judgments “mean that the information is credibly sourced and plausible,” but not of high enough quality to warrant a high confidence judgement, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Finally, “low confidence” judgments are based on evidence that is “questionable,” “too fragmented or poorly corroborated,” according to the office.

The carefully couched language of the intelligence community is likely to settle few debates. And those who were hoping to have a more definitive statement on the virus’s origins are likely to be disappointed by the report, particularly since the intelligence community says it “will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information” comes to light.

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