Declassified report shows split among intelligence agencies over COVID-19's origin

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

When the Biden administration’s 90-day intelligence review of the origin of the coronavirus was completed back in August, a summary of the major findings was released. As Ed noted at the time, the review was basically a dud, i.e. there was no clear answer and even the various elements within the intelligence community couldn’t agree if a lab leak or natural transmission was more likely.

Yesterday, a declassified version of the full report was released. I can’t seem to find a copy of it online anywhere but a number of news outlets have seen it and have written about it. The outcome hasn’t changed of course but we do have a bit more detailed information. The Financial Times reports that one agency believes the preponderance of evidence supports the lab leak theory:

According to the report, analysts at the unnamed agency believe the dangerous nature of the science being carried out at the Wuhan lab and the lack of safety precautions make it most likely that it is the source of the pandemic…

The report said: “Although the [intelligence community] has no indications that WIV research involved Sars-Cov-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] or a close progenitor virus, these analysts note that it is plausible that researchers may have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, possibly resulting in asymptomatic or mild infection.”

The agency that believes an accident happened at the Wuhan lab does so because of the type of research that was being conducted there and the fact that some of it was being done at relatively low biosafety levels.

FT says the agency is unnamed in the report but if we jump over to the NY Times, they have a report saying the agency that supports the lab lead is the FBI:

Four intelligence agencies, and the National Intelligence Council, consider the natural causes theory more plausible. One agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, backs the lab leak theory. But none of those agencies have delivered to the director of national intelligence or the White House a high-confidence assessment, which shows the doubt that continues to swirl around the question.

I guess that means the CIA and the NSA both support the natural transmission theory. But the confidence is so low that they haven’t even been able to rule out that the virus was being manipulated in the lab before it leaked:

The intelligence community has broadly concluded that the virus causing Covid-19 was not deliberately engineered in a lab. But even that conclusion is made only with low confidence. Some genetic engineering techniques make modifications difficult to identify, particularly given existing gaps in knowledge about the diversity of naturally occurring coronaviruses.

“Some genetic engineering techniques may make genetically modified viruses indistinguishable from natural viruses, according to academic journal articles,” the report said.

No one thinks this was a bioweapon but it’s not impossible that the military was running its own gain-of-function experiments and creating chimeric viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and one of those was accidentally released. But according to the NY Times, the main reason most agencies believe this was a natural transfer is that there is evidence authorities in China were surprised.

Critically, American intelligence analysts have assessed that Chinese officials did not know about the existence of the novel coronavirus until after Covid was detected in the population and it was isolated by the Wuhan institute.

“Accordingly, if the pandemic originated from a laboratory-associated incident, they probably were unaware in the initial months that such an incident had occurred,” the report said.

The report also suggested that the Wuhan institute researchers were not aware of the virus until the outbreak was underway, since they quickly pivoted to working on Covid as the outbreak grew worse.

So the depressing bottom line here is we still don’t know and probably will never know what happened until the secretive, communist government of China collapses and we’re able to sift through the archives without their interference.