A new intelligence report from the U.S. Department of Energy that reportedly concludes it’s possible the COVID-19 pandemic originated from an accidental laboratory leak in China is renewing questions over where the virus came from.
But the report, which has not been made public but is the subject of reporting by multiple American media outlets, has also further underscored the continued divide in the U.S. intelligence community and elsewhere over the pandemic’s origins — a point echoed by the White House on Monday.
“There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started,” said John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council. “There is just not an intelligence community consensus.”
The report’s findings differ from other intelligence agencies’ conclusions — which are also not definitive — that the virus jumped from an animal to a human in nature, as past coronaviruses have. Those findings were also raised by China’s foreign ministry in response to the Energy Department report.
“Certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing,” spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Monday, according to a translated transcript.
Here’s what the media reporting about the new report says, why the Department of Energy is investigating COVID-19’s origins at all, and what may happen next.
What does the report say?
As the Wall Street Journal first reported over the weekend — and later confirmed by CNN, the New York Times and other outlets — the Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence concluded with “low confidence” that the virus likely emerged from a Chinese laboratory.
That conclusion is consistent with a persistent theory that the virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a top coronavirus research facility.
The department’s finding was based on new intelligence, which officials who discussed the report anonymously to American media declined to give details on.
The new report does not appear to say the virus’ leak from the lab was intentional, or that COVID-19 was being engineered as some sort of bioweapon.
Rather, according to the officials cited in the media reports, it concludes the virus likely infected a researcher who then spread it outside the lab.
Why would the Department of Energy investigate COVID-19?
The Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence is one of 18 agencies that make up the government-wide U.S. intelligence community.
In addition, beyond its responsibilities over key national security concerns like atomic and nuclear energy, the department also oversees the country’s network of national laboratories, some of which conduct biological research like the Wuhan lab.
“It is a serious department with serious national security responsibilities, so it makes sense that it has an intelligence unit,” said Timothy Sayle, a professor at the University of Toronto whose research includes government intelligence gathering.
“If you’re thinking about what’s called the ‘lab leak hypothesis,’ it also makes some sense, I think, to be hearing from people who have responsibilities for labs.”
But the determination of the Department of Energy that the assessment was made with “low confidence” has raised additional questions about what that means.
The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence defines a “low confidence” assessment as one where “the information used in the analyses is scant, questionable, fragmented” or otherwise not solid enough to draw a definitive conclusion from.
Sayle says the Department of Energy may have based its report more on analyses of its own laboratories and “what’s plausible” rather than hard evidence found in Wuhan.
What have other agencies said?
The Department of Energy conclusion is the latest to emerge after President Joe Biden ordered a government-wide probe into the pandemic’s origins in May 2021.
A declassified 2021 intelligence community report out of that review said four agencies had assessed with low confidence that the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans.
Yet a fifth agency said it had “moderate confidence” in the lab leak theory. Although the specific agencies weren’t named in the declassified report, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have reported the pro-lab leak agency was the FBI.
On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly confirmed the agency’s position that a laboratory incident was the “most likely” cause. He also criticized the Chinese government for thwarting U.S.-led investigations into the matter.
“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” he told Fox News in an interview.
Three other agencies in the 2021 report were unable to say they had any confidence in either explanation without more information.
In 2021, a joint study by China and the World Health Organization all but ruled out the theory that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory.
Yet the WHO has since pressed Beijing for more information and suggested the expert team sent to China for the initial investigation was stymied by Chinese officials who limited releasing data on the possibility of a lab leak.
China has denied such accusations and insists it has always cooperated with probes into the pandemic’s origins.
The scientific community, meanwhile, largely supports the natural origin theory. Two studies, published last year by the journal Science, found that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was likely the early epicentre, where the virus likely spilled from animals into people two separate times in late 2019.
What is the political reaction?
Republicans in the U.S. have long argued in favour of a lab leak being the more likely origin point for COVID-19, accusing China of covering it up with help from pro-China figures in Washington and even the WHO.
A 2021 report from Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a similar report last year from Senate Republican staff concluded an accidental lab leak was “reasonable.” Both reports cited circumstantial evidence through public reports of activities at the Wuhan laboratory and other factors.
“While I wish it had happened sooner, I’m pleased the Department of Energy has finally reached the same conclusion that I had already come to,” said Michael McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, in a statement on Sunday, calling for the Biden administration to do the same and brief Congress on the new report’s evidence.
A new Republican-led subcommittee investigating the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. government’s response said earlier this month it is seeking information, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, concerning the idea that the virus leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab. The letter from the committee is also addressed to National Intelligence Director Avril Haine and other administration officials.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Republicans will “follow the facts” and “hold U.S. government officials that took part in any sort of cover-up accountable.”
Republicans have accused Fauci of lying to Congress when he denied in May that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” research — the practice of enhancing a virus in a lab to study its potential impact in the real world — at the Wuhan virology lab, suggesting that funding would make the U.S. complicit in the pandemic if proven true.
Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, emphasized that President Biden believes it’s important to know what happened “so we can better prevent future pandemics” but that such research “must be done in a safe and secure manner and as transparent as possible to the rest of the world.”
What has Canada said?
To date, no official investigation or conclusions into COVID-19’s origins have been publicly announced by the Canadian government or the country’s intelligence agencies.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces told Global News Tuesday its intelligence units “have not done this type of work.”
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), meanwhile, would not answer Global News’ questions on whether it was currently investigating the matter, or had ever done so.
“There are important limits to what I can publicly discuss given the need to protect sensitive activities, techniques, methods, and sources of intelligence,” spokesperson Eric Balsam said in an email. “These limitations are essential to ensure the safety, security, and prosperity of Canada.”