New intelligence has led the US Department of Energy to conclude that the coronavirus pandemic was likely caused by a Chinese laboratory leak, but the White House claims that American intelligence is still deeply divided on the subject.
The conclusions, which were first reported by The Wall Street Journal, represent a change in the Department of Energy’s previous position that was more ambivalent on the potential causes. Although we do not know the nature of the new intelligence, the fact that it has caused a shift in the department’s position is significant. As The New York Times points out, the Energy Department derives its insights from a network of laboratories, some conducting advanced biological research. It suggests the department is responding to information that has not been gleaned from more traditional forms of intelligence gathering, such as spy networks and communications interceptions.
Yet these conclusions are not shared by everyone briefed on the intelligence. Officials have noted that the Department of Energy’s change of heart was made with “low confidence”, which demonstrates the level of division between US intelligence agencies concerning the virus’s origins.
Although most authorities on the subject reject the idea that the virus was deliberately created as a biological weapon, there are still two distinct camps concerning its origins. In the first, the lab leak hypothesis camp, sits the Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who believe the pandemic was caused by an accidental leak from Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese laboratory that worked on coronaviruses. In the other camp are four other intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council who believe, with low certainty, that the virus was most likely caused by a natural exposure to an infected animal.
According to Jake Sullivan, a White House National Security Advisor, a “variety of views" on the matter remain. “Right now”, he said in an interview with CNN, “there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question.”
“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.”
Scientific communities across the world agree that it is crucial to determine the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that brought the world to a standstill in 2020. In March 2021, the World Health Organization concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had emerged from a lab leak in China, but this report was criticized, not least as China had appointed many of the scientists who helped produced it. Yet many scientists believe the disease to be zoonotic in nature, meaning it likely originated in an animal and mutated in a way that let it spread to humans.