Summary of coronavirus origin investigation: Virus not engineered but could have spread naturally or from a lab

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The Office of Director of National Intelligence has released an unclassified summary of their 90-day review on the origin of the coronavirus. The two page summary doesn’t offer any details about the underlying evidence only where the various elements of the Intelligence Community currently stand on the origin question. The statement the summary seems to be highlighting is that the IC agrees the coronavirus was not engineered as a bioweapon and that China had no foreknowledge of the virus.

The IC assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In addition, the IC was able to reach broad agreement on several other key issues. We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.

It’s a little unclear what that is meant to convey but I think the point is simply that there’s agreement China didn’t engineer this and then plan its release. I don’t think too many people were suggesting that as a likely possibility. In fact, claiming that talk of a lab leak was tantamount to talk of an engineered virus was one the main ways the lab leak theory was dismissed last year.

The IC still isn’t in agreement about how the virus originated, though a plurality of “IC elements” think it was natural transfer:

Four IC elements and the National Intelligence Council assess with low confidence that the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus—a virus that probably would be more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2. These analysts give weight to China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge, the numerous vectors for natural exposure, and other factors.

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, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These analysts give weight to the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses.

Analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely.

It’s interesting to me that the summary claims the four IC elements who support natural transfer credit China’s lack of foreknowledge as a significant factor in that judgment. Would China have had foreknowledge of an accidental lab leak? How would that work exactly?

In any case, the latest breakdown represents a shift from three months ago when this review started. Back in May the ODNI released a brief statement saying the following:

The U.S. Intelligence Community does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident. While two elements of the IC lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements within the IC do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.

So we’ve gone from two IC elements supporting natural transfer back then to four now. Meanwhile, support for a lab leak origin is steady at one IC element. Now for the bad news. The IC says there’s probably not going to be any more consensus without additional data and that probably can’t happen without help from China:

The IC—and the global scientific community—lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. If we obtain information on the earliest cases that identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses.

China has already been very clear that they are not interested in any further WHO investigation, much less an American investigation. In fact, the CCP is pushing out propaganda about Fort Detrick as hard as they can right now.

This week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman repeatedly used an official podium to elevate unproven ideas that the coronavirus may have first leaked from a research facility in Fort Detrick, Md. A Communist Party publication, the Global Times, started an online petition in July calling for that lab to be investigated and said it gathered more than 25 million signatures.

Officials and state media have promoted a rap song by a patriotic Chinese hip-hop group that touted the same claim, with the lyrics: “How many plots came out of your labs? How many dead bodies hanging a tag?”

Beijing is peddling groundless theories that the United States may be the true source of the coronavirus, as it pushes back against efforts to investigate the pandemic’s origins in China. The disinformation campaign started last year, but Beijing has raised the volume in recent weeks, reflecting its anxiety about being blamed for the pandemic that has killed millions globally.

If China is just pushing that propaganda in response to the lab leak theory, why not open the books and provide answers about some of those early patients from November 2019? The CCP seems incapable of recognizing that their own insistence on secrecy of obviously relevant data is one of the main reasons a natural transfer origin can’t be confirmed.