American intelligence agencies don’t know how the Covid-19 pandemic started, declassified intelligence says.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in a report released today said that all agencies of the government “continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection.”
The report acknowledges that researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists conducted coronavirus research in the city where Covid first emerged, fell ill in the fall of 2019, shortly before the pandemic began.
The Wall Street Journal, confirming reporting by journalists at the Substack blog Public, reported last week that one of the sick researchers, Ben Hu, had worked on coronaviruses with U.S. funding.
Advocates of the lab leak theory seized on the news as near-definitive proof that their hypothesis was correct.
But the intelligence report says it’s not so certain.
While several Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers “fell mildly ill in Fall 2019,” the report acknowledges, “they experienced a range of symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with COVID-19, and some of them were confirmed to have been sick with other illnesses unrelated to COVID-19.”
The report does confirm that the Wuhan lab did not always adhere to safety protocols in studying coronaviruses.
The intelligence agencies also say that institute researchers have genetically engineered coronaviruses, but the agencies do not have information showing the researchers worked on the strain that led to the pandemic.
The report says the Wuhan institute is known to have collaborated with the Chinese Army, but only on defensive projects related to improving China’s biosecurity and early disease warning capabilities.
The report also confirms the disagreement among U.S. agencies, with the National Intelligence Council and other intelligence agencies favoring the natural origin theory, while the FBI and Energy Department favor the lab leak hypothesis. The CIA has not taken a position.
The intelligence was released to comply with a law Congress passed unanimously and President Joe Biden signed in March.
Why it matters: The congressional advocates of the March law, including its sponsor, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), had hoped it would shed new light on the pandemic’s origins.
Republicans in Congress have increasingly pushed the lab leak theory, and accused the Biden administration of trying to cover it up because the U.S. funded research at the Wuhan lab.
Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who leads the Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, called the release of the report, which comes almost a week after the legal deadline, “a promising step toward full transparency.”
They called for the corroboration of all available evidence and further investigation into the Covid-19 origin to continue.
Jordain Carney contributed to this report.