The virus that drove the COVID-19 pandemic, killing close to 7 million people globally, most likely emerged from a laboratory leak in China, according to a US media report, citing a classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress.
The Huanan market in central China’s Wuhan city was the epicentre of the pandemic. From its origin there, the SARS-CoV-2 virus rapidly spread to other locations in Wuhan in late 2019 and then to the rest of the world.
The pandemic’s origin has been the subject of vigorous debate among academics, intelligence experts and lawmakers.
The findings of the US Department of Energy, a departure from previous studies on how the virus emerged, came in an update to a document from the Office of National Intelligence director Avril Haines, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.
The new report highlights how different parts of the intelligence community have arrived at disparate judgments about the pandemic’s origin.
The Energy Department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory. Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of natural transmission, and two are undecided.
The Energy Department’s conclusion is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of US national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research, the report said.
The Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence,” according to people who have read the classified report.
The spread of COVID-19, just one in a line of infectious coronavirus to emerge, caught global health bodies unawares in early 2020. Close to 7 million people have died worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday said that the intelligence community is divided on the matter while noting that President Joe Biden has put resources into getting to the bottom of the origin question.
Sullivan said that Biden had directed the national laboratories, which are part of the Department of Energy, to be brought into the assessment.
“Right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question,” Sullivan told CNN.
“Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other. A number of them have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure.”
The deadly virus has also disrupted the global economy, trade as well as travel.
The FBI previously came to the conclusion that the pandemic was likely the result of a lab leak in 2021 with “moderate confidence” and still holds onto this view.
The National Intelligence Council, which conducts long-term strategic analysis, and four agencies, which officials declined to identify, still assess with “low confidence” that the virus came about through natural transmission from an infected animal, according to the updated report.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and another agency that officials would not name remain undecided between the lab leak and natural transmission theories, the people who have read the classified report said.
Despite the agencies’ differing analyses, the update reaffirmed an existing consensus between them that COVID-19 was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons programme, the people who have read the classified report said.
A senior US intelligence official confirmed that the intelligence community had conducted the update, whose existence has not previously been reported. This official added that it was done in light of new intelligence, further study of academic literature and consultation with experts outside the government.
The emergence of the pandemic heightened tensions between the US and China, which US officials alleged was withholding information about the outbreak.
At first, the dominant view was that the virus likely arose naturally when it leapt from an animal to a human, as had happened in the past. But as time elapsed and no animal host was found, there has been a greater focus on coronavirus research in Wuhan and the potential for an accidental laboratory leak, the report added.
China, which has placed limits on investigations by the WHO, has disputed that the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of its labs in Wuhan, and has suggested it emerged outside China.
Meanwhile, US House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul has said that he was “pleased” the Energy Department “has finally reached the same conclusion that I had already come to.” The Texas Republican had released a 2021 report that concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence” showed the pandemic originated with a leak from the Wuhan lab.
“Now is the time for the entire Biden administration to join the Department of Energy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the majority of Americans by publicly concluding what common sense told us at the start — the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a lab leak in Wuhan, China,” McCaul said in a statement on Sunday.