The debate surrounding the origin of the COVID-19 virus continues to be a point of contention amongst governments and health agencies worldwide. The question of whether the virus originated in animals or leaked from a Chinese laboratory remains unanswered, but the United States Department of Energy (DOE) has reportedly assessed with “low confidence” that the virus began with a lab leak.
According to a person familiar with the report, who was not authorized to discuss it, the DOE has not made the report public. However, the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that the classified report was based on new intelligence and noted in an update to a 2021 document.
Despite the DOE’s conclusion, there is no consensus within the U.S. intelligence community about the virus’s exact origins. John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Monday, “There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started.”
The White House declined to confirm press reports about the assessment, and the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report. All 18 offices of the U.S. intelligence community had access to the information the DOE used in reaching its assessment.
Many scientists believe the animal-to-human theory of the coronavirus remains much more plausible. They theorize it emerged in the wild and jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another animal.
However, some scientists are open to the lab-leak theory. Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, said she isn’t sure what new intelligence the agencies had, but “it’s reasonable to infer” it relates to activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. She said a 2018 research proposal co-authored by scientists there and their U.S. collaborators “essentially described a blueprint for COVID-like viruses.”
“The scientific literature contains essentially nothing but original research articles that support a natural origin of this virus pandemic,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who has extensively studied COVID-19′s origins.
Last year, the World Health Organization recommended a deeper probe into a possible lab accident. China has called the suggestion that COVID-19 came from a Chinese laboratory “baseless.”
In a 2021 research paper in the journal Cell, scientists said the COVID-19 virus is the ninth documented coronavirus to infect humans — and all the previous ones originated in animals. Two studies published last year by the journal Science bolstered the animal origin theory. That research found that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was likely the early epicenter. Scientists concluded that the virus likely spilled from animals into people two separate times.
The DOE conclusion comes to light as House Republicans have been using their new majority power to investigate all aspects of the pandemic, including the origin, as well as what they contend were officials’ efforts to conceal the fact that it leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Earlier this month, Republicans sent letters to Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, Health Secretary Xavier Beccera, and others as part of their investigative efforts.
The now-retired Fauci, who served as the country’s top infectious disease expert under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has called the GOP criticism nonsense.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has asked the Biden administration to provide Congress with “a full and thorough” briefing on the report and the evidence behind it.