Aside from an unforeseen breakthrough, intelligence services will not be able to conclude whether COVID-19 was spread by animal-to-human transmission or leaked from a laboratory, U.S. officials say when they release a fuller version of their review of the origin of the pandemic.
The newspaper, issued by the director of National Intelligence, elaborates on results published in August by a 90-day review commissioned by US President Joe Biden.
This review said that US intelligence services were divided about the origin of the virus, but that analysts do not believe that the virus was developed as a bioweapon and that most agencies believe that the virus was not genetically engineered.
China has resisted global pressure to cooperate fully with pandemic investigations or to access genetic sequences of coronavirus stored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which remains the subject of speculation for its research and reported security concerns.
Biden launched the review amid growing momentum for the theory – initially widely rejected by experts – that the virus was leaking from the Wuhan lab.
Former President Donald Trump and his allies have long argued that a laboratory leak was possible.
China remains an extremely difficult place for intelligence operations and has fought back against allegations that it abused the emergence of the pandemic, which has killed nearly five million people worldwide.
Senior officials involved in drafting the full report said they hoped it would better inform the public about the challenges of identifying the origins of COVID-19.
“We do not think we are one or two reports from being able to understand it,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
‘We do not think we are one or two reports from being able to understand it’
The full report notes that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “previously created chimeras or combinations of SARS-like coronaviruses, but this information does not provide insight into whether SARS Cov-2 was genetically engineered by the WIV”.
Information that laboratory researchers sought medical treatment for a respiratory disease in November 2019 “is not diagnostic of the origin of the pandemic,” the report said.
And allegations that China launched the virus as a bioweapon were rejected because their supporters “do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology”, make scientifically invalid claims or are accused of spreading disinformation, the report said.
Four agencies in the intelligence community said with low confidence that the virus was originally transmitted from an animal to a human.
A fifth intelligence service believed with moderate confidence that the first human infection was associated with a laboratory.
Prior to writing the report, analysts conducted what the report describes as a “Team A / Team B” debate to try to strengthen or weaken each hypothesis.
It is often not quick, easy or always possible to confirm the origin of a virus with 100 percent certainty.
In the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS – a disease caused by a beta-coronavirus, like the current coronavirus – researchers first identified the virus in February 2003.
Later that year, scientists discovered the probable intermediate hosts: Himalayan palm civeter found at live animal markets in Guangdong, China.
But it was not until 2017 that researchers traced the likely original source of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.