Controversies over the origins of COVID reveal an intelligence community in disarray. Here are four fixes

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A recent Wall Street Journal article reported new, classified information from the US Department of Energy about the origins of COVID. He concluded with “low confidence” that the pandemic may have been due to a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, rather than natural animal-to-human disease transmission.

The report is the latest chapter in a long story about the origins of the pandemic, which includes conflicting assessments from intelligence, political and scientific communities around the world.

Debate over the origins of COVID began early in the pandemic, with heavy pressure on the intelligence community by then-US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to pin the blame on the Chinese government.

In May 2021, the Biden administration attempted to resolve some of the conflicting information and data points about the origins of COVID by commissioning the US intelligence community to do a 90-day review of available information.

An unclassified version of this review was subsequently released in October 2021. It was published by the peak body of the US intelligence community — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report shows a consensus among eight US intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council (which provides long-term strategic analysis for the president) that COVID was not an incident of bioterrorism.

However, there was disagreement between the agencies about the two most likely origins of COVID:

  • it was the result of animal-to-human transmission

  • it was the result of an accidental laboratory leak, likely from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

No agency was named in the unclassified report, although four agencies, as well as the National Intelligence Council, reportedly concluded (also with low confidence) that the origin was through physical transmission. Two others (the FBI and the Department of Energy) have now assessed it as a lab leak. Two agencies remain undecided, including reportedly the CIA.

Why is intelligence conflicting?

This lack of consensus among intelligence agencies and low levels of confidence in their assessments is due to several factors.

Variations in analytical judgments are mainly due to how each agency interprets what are, at best, fragmented sources of information. There is also the question of how intelligence analysts make sense of complex scientific research.

Several scientific studies that looked at environmental testing for COVID at the live animal and seafood market in Wuhan and early cases of patients living nearby provided strong evidence of natural transmission of the virus. That is, the scientific evidence points to the market as the likely epicenter of the outbreak.

However, the scientific and epidemiological data themselves are also lacking. Specifically, analysts have not determined from which animal the virus likely jumped to infect humans. More genetic data and a better understanding of how coronaviruses are naturally transmitted are needed to fill the information gaps, especially on the initial cases in Wuhan.

According to US officials, Beijing has been unwilling to grant full access to data requests from Western governments — or the World Health Organization.

What needs to change before the next pandemic

The Energy Department report highlights an even bigger issue that has received less attention. The US intelligence community and the other “Five Eyes” partners (Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand) must improve their methods of intelligence gathering and analysis of health security threats and risks, including from potential pandemics.

Four things will help improve the capabilities of the intelligence community and hopefully bring more confidence to their assessments of the causes of future health emergencies and pandemics.

1. Better collection and analysis of health intelligence

As pandemics become more frequent, our intelligence agencies need better risk, threat and risk assessment methodologies to drive more robust evidence-based intelligence collection and analysis.

This means improving ways of combining traditional sources of intelligence (often qualitative in nature) with scientific evidence to better assess the potential intent, capability and impact of health threats and risks.

2. Strengthening stronger ties with the scientific community

The complexity of future pandemic threats and the potential weaponization of biotechnology will require intelligence agencies to foster a more deliberate and consistent interaction with the scientific community.

The US intelligence community has a track record here, but it and other Five Eyes countries will require an even more strategic, coordinated approach from the relatively closed intelligence world to the science community.

Greater workforce expertise in microbiology, genetics, virology, and public health within the intelligence community is also needed.

3. Create a strong national health security strategy

Each agency cannot feasibly develop the capabilities to improve intelligence collection and analysis on its own. A whole-of-government approach is needed to define the roles, functions and mandates of each agency for future health security risks.

We support a national health security strategy, just like the national cybersecurity strategies in each Five Eyes country, to improve governance and coordination between health security intelligence agencies.

4. Conduct a 9/11 committee-style review

Finally, to develop stronger national health security measures after COVID-19, we need full independent reviews of how the intelligence community and key public health agencies performed throughout the pandemic in the US and its allies.

Such reviews could include what went well and lessons to be learned that can feed into national health security strategies.

Ideally, a review would also examine any evidence of politicization of information. Politics has always affected intelligence gathering and analysis, not just during COVID.

For example, assessing whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 shows how politics can adversely affect the ability of intelligence agencies to provide independent, unbiased advice to policymakers.

Recent calls for the equivalent of a 9/11 commission for COVID have so far gone nowhere in Washington. It is not too late to make such a review. But realistically, given the fractured political climate in the US, the possibility of setting up an independent commission seems more difficult than in the other Five Eyes countries.

This means we are missing an opportunity to improve our intelligence services, which is absolutely necessary before the next global pandemic event.

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Reference: Controversies over the origins of COVID reveal an intelligence community in disarray. Here are four corrections (2023, March 9) retrieved on March 9, 2023, from

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