A long-anticipated government report on the origins of Covid-19 offered new details on the U.S. intelligence community’s findings but did not state definitively whether the source of the coronavirus was exposure to an infected animal or an event at a laboratory.
“All agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Friday in a 10-page declassified report.
The report laid out divisions within the Intelligence Community, some of which were previously acknowledged.
While the National Intelligence Council and four unnamed agencies assessed that natural exposure to an infected animal was the most likely scenario for the first human infection, the Department of Energy and FBI’s assessment was that a laboratory-associated incident was more likely the cause.
Meanwhile, the CIA and an unidentified agency “remain unable to determine the precise origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, as both hypotheses rely on significant assumptions or face challenges with conflicting reporting,” the report states.
“Almost all” intelligence agencies agreed that the virus wasn’t genetically engineered, and all agencies agreed that Covid was not manufactured as a biological weapon.
Additionally, the report said “most” agencies also agreed that the virus was not laboratory-adapted — more specifically, that the virus had not sustained natural, random mutations via human-enabled processes in the lab.
The report shed light on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a lab and began infecting people or was transmitted to humans from an animal.
It described how between 2017 and 2019 the lab funded, and some of its personnel conducted, research in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army to boost China’s knowledge of pathogens and early disease warning capabilities for the military’s defensive and biosecurity needs.
Some of the research conducted by the People’s Liberation Army and the lab “included work with several viruses, including coronaviruses, but no known viruses that could plausibly be a progenitor of” Covid, the report said.
The report also said that while the lab and military collaborated on vaccines and therapeutics relevant to coronaviruses, “this work was intended for public health needs” and the coronaviruses known to be used were “too distantly related” to have led to the virus causing Covid-19.
The intelligence community in March expanded its inquiry into Covid-19, by examining whether the first human infection with the virus was the result of natural exposure to an infected animal or a lab-linked incident, according to Friday’s report.
In 2021, a U.S. intelligence report identified three researchers at the Wuhan institute who sought treatment at a hospital after falling ill in November 2019 — providing inconclusive, circumstantial evidence that appeared to bolster a hypothesis that the virus may have spread to humans after escaping from the lab.
The report released on Friday notes that several researchers were sick in fall 2019 and that some of their symptoms were “consistent with but not diagnostic of COVID-19,” suggesting that they could have had a cold or allergies, and that their illness alone “neither supports nor refutes either hypothesis of the pandemic’s origins.”
The Intelligence Community was not aware of a particular biosafety incident that might have caused the pandemic, the report said, while noting that some of the lab’s researchers “probably did not use adequate biosafety precautions at least some of the time prior to the pandemic in handling SARS-like coronaviruses,” which increased the risk of potential exposure to viruses.
Parts of the lab were inspected in 2020, revealing overdue updates to old equipment, and needs for additional disinfectant equipment and improved ventilation systems, but the report cautioned that the timing of these findings were “not necessarily indicative” of the lab’s biosafety status before the outbreak.
Congress passed legislation earlier this year requiring the intelligence community to declassify information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the pandemic’s origins.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a statement Friday that the U.S. “has issued similar reports before.”
“The US should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing issue,” Liu said.
A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the report’s release reflects a commitment from President Joe Biden “to declassify and share as much information as possible related to the origins of COVID-19, while protecting sources and methods.” The spokesman added that “getting to the bottom of the origins” of Covid remains a top priority for the president.
House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Turner of Ohio and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, called the declassified report “a promising step toward full transparency.”
“Everyone deserves to know the truth,” the two GOP lawmakers said in a statement, adding that their committees “will continue to investigate the origins of COVID-19 and the information obtained today will help to further its investigation.”
In the Senate, Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner pointed the finger at Beijing for the uncertainty that still surrounds the early days of the coronavirus.
“Basic concepts that we take for granted in our democracy, like accountability and transparency, are totally anathema to China’s Communist Party. As a result, we may never learn the true origins of the global pandemic that resulted millions of lost lives and livelihoods,” Warner, D-Va., said in a statement.
The Chinese government has maintained that it’s “always been open and transparent” about Covid.
Biden administration officials have also voiced their frustration with China in conducting Covid investigations.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a Fox News interview this year that the Chinese government had been doing “its best to try to thwart and obfuscate the work here, the work that we’re doing, the work that our U.S. government and close foreign partners are doing, and that’s unfortunate for everybody.”
The Chinese Embassy did not respond at the time to Wray’s remarks.