Trump admin’s hunt for pandemic "lab leak" went down many paths without a smoking gun

“We never got to a smoking gun, which perhaps most people are focused on,” said Anthony Ruggiero, who was the NSC senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. “We were trying to do an all-source review of the information that’s out there and trying to do it in the most honest way possible, which is you start with some theories or hypotheses and then see where the information takes you.”

Some intelligence officers feared that senior Trump administration officials, frustrated that the spy agencies were coming up empty, were cherry-picking intelligence to support the lab-leak theory. Others worried that the intelligence agencies’ inability to determine the origin, despite their having warned for years of the likelihood of a devastating pandemic, revealed critical shortcomings that leave the country vulnerable to future outbreaks...

The team of experts that convened in February 2020 — hailing from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia — had compared the virus’s genome to that of RaTG13, a coronavirus discovered in horseshoe bats in China in 2013 and the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, with about 96 percent similarity. A few on the call believed some of the new virus’s signatures suggested possible human manipulation, while several others believed it looked like a naturally evolving one, Collins said.

Over the course of an hour, they discussed whether the virus’s “furin cleavage site” in its spike protein, which is key to the virus’s ability to attack human cells, could have been engineered. It was not present in the virus’s closest relatives, but it was present in other human coronaviruses, which to the experts suggested it was a feature that could occur naturally. The virus also has a number of other unique features that make it highly efficient at infecting humans — features those on the call thought a human could not possibly have designed.