US agency assessment backing Covid lab leak theory raises more questions than answers — and backlash from China

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared on CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a thrice-weekly update that explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Register here.

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The US Department of Energy’s assessment that Covid-19 likely arose from a laboratory accident in China has reignited heated debate and attention to the question of how the pandemic began.

But the “low confidence” designation, made in a recently updated classified report, has raised more questions than answers, as the department has not publicly provided any new evidence to support the claim. It also drew a strong push from China.

“We urge the US to respect science and facts, stop politicizing this issue, stop tracing its origins based on information and politics,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.

The Energy Department’s assessment is part of a broader US effort in which intelligence agencies were called on by President Joe Biden in 2021 to look into the origins of the coronavirus, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

That overall assessment by the intelligence community was inconclusive, and then, as now, there is still no definitive link between the virus and a specific animal or other route – as China continues to block international investigations into the virus’ origins.

Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council assessed with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans through natural exposure, while one assessed with moderate confidence that the pandemic was the result of a laboratory accident. Three other elements of the intelligence community could not coalesce around any explanation without additional information, according to a declassified version of the 2021 report.

The majority of organizations remain undecided or lean towards the virus having a natural origin – a hypothesis also widely favored by scientists with expertise in the field. But the shift by the US Department of Energy has now deepened the split in the intelligence community, especially as the FBI director commented publicly for the first time this week about his agency’s similar determination made with “moderate confidence”.

Intelligence agencies can make assessments with low, medium or high confidence. A low confidence rating generally means that the information received is not reliable enough or is too fragmented to make a more definitive judgment.

And while the assessment and new commentary brought the theory back into the spotlight, neither agency released evidence or information to support their determinations. This raises critical questions about their basis – and turns the spotlight back on the gaps, the great unknowns and the need for further research.

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Hear the FBI director’s take on the Covid lab leak theory

Scientists largely believe the virus likely arose from a natural transmission from an infected animal to humans, like many viruses before it, though they widely acknowledge the need for more research into all options. Many also questioned the lack of evidence released to substantiate the latter claim.

Virologist Thea Fischer, who in 2021 traveled to Wuhan as part of a World Health Organization (WHO) origin investigation and remains part of the WHO’s ongoing tracing efforts, said it was “very important” any new estimates related to its origin virus. substantiated with evidence.

“(These are) strong allegations against a public research laboratory in China and cannot stand alone without substantial evidence,” said Fischer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“Hopefully they will soon be shared with the WHO so that the evidence can be known and evaluated by international health experts, like all other evidence on the origins of the pandemic.”

A senior US intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the Energy Department’s new assessment, that the assessment update was made in light of new information, further study of the academic literature and in consultation with experts outside the government .

The idea that the virus could have arisen from a lab accident became more apparent as the spotlight shifted to coronavirus research being done at local facilities, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It improved further amid a failure to find a “smoking gun” showing which animal could have transmitted the virus to people at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – the site linked to a number of early known outbreaks amid restrictions on research monitoring.

Some experts closely involved in examining the existing information, however, are skeptical of the new assessment giving the theory more weight.

“Given that so much of the data we have points to a secondary event that occurred in the Huanan market in late 2019, I doubt there is anything very significant about it or new information that would change our current understanding,” said David Robertson, professor at the School of Infection and Immunity at the University of Glasgow, who was involved in recent research with findings supporting the natural origin theory.

He noted that sites of early human cases centered on the market, positive environmental samples and confirmation that live animals susceptible to the virus were for sale are among the evidence supporting the natural origin theory — while there is no data to support a lab leak.

“The extent of this evidence is constantly being lost (in media discussions) … when in fact we know a lot about what happened, and arguably more than other cases,” he said.

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus visit on February 3, 2021.

Efforts to understand how the pandemic began have been further complicated by China’s lack of transparency — especially as the question of origins has become another point of bitter contention in rising US-China tensions in recent years.

Beijing has blocked robust, long-term international field investigations and refused to allow a laboratory test, that could bring clarity and was reticent to share details and data about the domestic investigation to uncover the cause. However, it repeatedly maintains that it has been transparent and cooperative with the WHO.

Chinese officials have scrutinized the single WHO-backed survey allowed on the ground in 2021, citing disease control measures that confine visiting experts to their hotel rooms for half of their trip and prevent them from sharing meals with their Chinese counterparts. . opportunity for more informal exchange of information.

Citing data protection, Beijing has also refused to allow its own investigative measures, such as testing stored blood samples from Wuhan or checking hospital data for possible “patient zeros”, to be verified by researchers outside the country.

China has strongly denied that the virus originated in a laboratory accident and has repeatedly tried to claim that it could have reached the country for the initial outbreak from elsewhere – including a US laboratory, without offering any evidence to support the claim.

But a top WHO official just last month publicly called for “more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies that need to be done in China” — including studies of markets and farms that might have been involved.

“These studies need to be conducted in China and we need collaboration from our colleagues there to advance our understanding,” WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, told a media briefing.

When asked about the Department of Energy’s assessment by CNN, a WHO spokesman said the agency and its tracing advisory body “will continue to review all available scientific evidence to help us advance knowledge of the origins of SARS CoV 2 and we call on China and the scientific community to carry out the necessary studies in this direction”.

“Until we have more evidence, all cases remain on the table,” the spokesman said.

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