Intelligence reports have a checkered history. They have recently taken center stage in the debate over the origin of the pandemic virus. With a change of heart at the Department of Energy and a simple restatement of the position at the FBI, those who argue that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are pressing their case. Most agencies still prefer the physical route or say they don’t know.
This latest reversal comes thanks to an update on a 90-day intelligence review that President Biden received in 2021. The review weighed whether the virus had jumped from experiments at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the “lab leak” theory or from a nearby animal market in that city where the outbreak began, of “natural origin.”
We now know that the DOE was previously one of four agencies, along with the National Intelligence Council, that assessed, with “low confidence,” that a physical pathway was more likely. The department’s reversal at this point has DOE supporting a laboratory origin, again with “low confidence.” Meanwhile, the FBI’s statement reveals it was the one agency in the unclassified review summary that felt, with “moderate confidence,” that a lab leak was possible — unlike the others, which were neutral or weighed in on the opposite. .
An intelligence assessment is not a scientific conclusion. They are different beasts. The abstract itself observes that different agencies weight information reports and scientific publications differently. The important factor in information assessments is the accuracy of the sources, while scientific conclusions depend on the data and the coherence of the argument supported by the data. However, data from a scientist who has proven unreliable in the past will carry less weight in scientific conclusions, and intelligence analysts will be skeptical of fanciful stories from an otherwise reliable informant. Scientific data is publicly available, unlike the reports that form the basis of information estimates.
Scientists share information widely, but intelligence professionals prefer to keep theirs to themselves. We don’t know if the new information has changed DOE’s position or what that new information might be. The latter explanation for the DOE’s change remains unspecified. Moving from one low confidence rating to another is not a big step. The definition of low confidence is “that the reliability and/or veracity of the information is uncertain, that the information is too fragmented or insufficiently corroborated to draw solid analytical conclusions, or that the reliability of the sources is questionable.”
In the weeks after September 11, 2001, letters containing carbon spores were mailed to NBC News, the New York Post and the offices of then-Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The FBI had primary responsibility for investigating who sent these letters. The investigation took seven years to build a primarily circumstantial case against Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist and researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. That’s seven years for a simpler investigation than the one on the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Ivins killed himself in 2008, just as the Justice Department was about to indict him.
Two subsequent investigations, by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council of the National Academies and the Government Accountability Office, found the FBI’s handling of the samples insufficient to support their conclusions. An independent investigation by news organizations reached the same conclusions. Solving the mystery of the carbon letters required cutting-edge science, which is not the expertise of the FBI.
Cutting-edge science, however, is the expertise of the Department of Energy, which operates 17 national laboratories, many studying SARS-CoV-2 and its origins. Intelligence professionals at national laboratories work with scientists to develop assessments. Because they are embedded in the labs, they can develop working relationships to explore science and intelligence puzzles. Because I was in charge of a similar environmental cleanup site at Los Alamos National Laboratory, one question I dealt with during the 1990s was whether the Soviets had conducted hydrodynamic tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, dispersing metallic pieces of plutonium. Members of the intelligence department came to me and other chemists, and to our physicist colleagues, to find out how and why such tests would have been done and what clues they would leave behind for analysts to detect. Eventually, we found that the tests were indeed done this way. A joint program with Russia and Kazakhstan discovered 100 kilograms of plutonium that could have gone to scavengers as a result of this police work.
Even experts have a difficult problem determining how diseases jump to humans. We still don’t know the origin of Ebola in humans, and it took three decades for scientists to trace HIV, first identified in humans in the early 1980s, to a jump from wild monkeys in the 1920s.
Genetic markers for possible pathways of SARS-CoV-2 in humans can be studied by DNA analysis and comparison with other viruses. No conclusive evidence of laboratory handling has been presented. No links have been found to known experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although China has not. There are gaps in the origin of SARS-CoV-2 that need to be closed before a definitive scientific conclusion can be reached.
An intelligence estimate, especially one developed in just 90 days, is simply not enough to determine how a virus jumped to humans. Science demands more. So far, the scientific evidence leans toward an accidental transfer from animals to humans, possibly at the Wuhan animal market. The intelligence assessment continues to point in that direction—even with the DOE reversal—with admittedly insufficient evidence for a reliable conclusion. “Trust me” is the tendency of the intelligence professional to disagree with the public and the basis for the origin of the leak in the laboratory, but the physical origin is supported by public data in scientific journals.
If there is new information or a new reason to believe otherwise, the public trust will be better served if that information is made known.
This is an opinion and analysis article and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.