The US intelligence community remains unable to reach a consensus on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with different agencies reaching different levels of confidence over whether the pathogen emerged naturally or escaped from a laboratory. According to an unclassified summary of a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence(DNI) released late Friday afternoon, a lack of clinical data makes it impossible to conclusively determine the source of the first outbreak in Wuhan, China.
“After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information… the IC [intelligence community] remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19,” says the report. “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident."
Four separate intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council contributed to the report, with each giving its assessment of the situation. According to the summary, “three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely.”
In spite of this considerable uncertainty, the various agencies do agree that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon and that Chinese officials had no foreknowledge of the virus prior to the initial outbreak. Most agencies also think that “SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered,” although some say that more evidence is needed in order to make such an assessment.
Regarding the source of the outbreak, the agencies collectively state with “low confidence” that the first human infection was most likely to have been caused by natural exposure to an animal carrying the virus. However, one IC element assesses with “moderate confidence” that the initial transmission was most likely to have occurred as “the result of a laboratory-associated incident” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The findings of the report do not mean conspiracy theories circulating about the origin of COVID-19 have been right. It's extremely difficult and complicated to pin down the origins of a pathogen. In Nature, virologist Robert Garry stated he and other experts aren't surprised the intelligence community doesn't have a consensus about the disease's origins yet. "It's huge to mainly rule out that this is a product of engineering," he said.
According to the report, a more conclusive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 will only become possible once more information becomes available.
“The IC—and the global scientific community—lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases,” states the DNI. “If we obtain information on the earliest cases that identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses.”
President Joe Biden has called on the Chinese authorities to cooperate with international investigations into the conditions surrounding the initial outbreak in Wuhan, criticizing Beijing for continuing to “withhold information” in a statement issued shortly after the report's release.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its own report on the origins of the virus, concluding that a laboratory incident was “extremely unlikely” to have triggered the pandemic. Last week, the authors of that report penned a warning that time may be running out to determine where the virus came from.
“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast,” they wrote, adding that “any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible.”