This week’s revelation that a top US scientific agency has joined the FBI in leaning toward a lab accident in China as the most likely source of the Covid pandemic has once again surfaced the entrenched politics that have impeded the search for answers since day one.
The new assessment is contained in a classified intelligence report, first disclosed by the Wall Street Journal and later confirmed by other media organizations. It is a small, yet important development in what has been the largely stalled search for how the SARS-CoV-2 virus – which was first detected in Wuhan, China – made its initial jump to infect humans before spreading around the world and killing millions.
In addition on Tuesday, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, publicly discussed the bureau’s longstanding view that the pandemic began with a lab accident.
“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” Wray told Fox News. “Here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.”
According to the Journal’s reporting, the US Department of Energy – which runs a national network of labs including some engaged in advanced biological research – has recently changed its assessment from being undecided on how the pandemic began to viewing a lab leak as the most likely source of the virus. The revised energy department assessment was made with “low confidence” and is reportedly based on some new, yet undisclosed, intelligence.
The news has reignited the overheated public debate over the two prevailing hypotheses for the origin of Covid: did the virus emerge in the usual way with a natural jump from an infected animal to a person, perhaps at a market selling wildlife and other live animals in Wuhan? Or did a laboratory accident at a major coronavirus research lab in Wuhan – perhaps involving a worker who unknowingly became infected during an experiment or field work – spark the initial outbreak in a city located far away from where these kinds of coronaviruses have historically been found in wild bats?
And it comes after a prominent group of US and international researchers have asserted for much of the past year that their studies of early Covid cases tied to a Wuhan seafood market establish that a natural zoonotic origin is the “only plausible scenario” for how the pandemic began and that “the lab leak theory is dead”.
One high-profile scientist this week even equated the Wall Street Journal’s report about the new energy department assessment to “spreading misinformation”, and he criticized the news organization for writing “that awful title today when the virology community presents overwhelming evidence for natural origins … ”.
But the case remains far from closed, as this week’s news shows.
While four unnamed US intelligence organizations and the National Intelligence Council lean toward a natural origin for the pandemic – they also have had “low confidence” in that assessment, according to a previously declassified intelligence report.
One other intelligence organization, previously reported to have been the FBI, had assessed since 2021 “with moderate confidence” that the initial human infection was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, involving activities ranging from experiments and animal handling to field work sampling for viruses in the wild. Until recently, the energy department was one of three government entities involved in intelligence matters that were undecided on the question, or in some cases had analysts viewing both hypotheses as “equally likely”.
While the three entities were not publicly identified in the declassified report, one of the entities that remains undecided is the Central Intelligence Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported. The other has not been identified.
Despite the differing views, the previously declassified report noted: “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the search for the origin of the virus has been distorted by politics on many fronts: from China’s restrictions on the release of scientific information and refusal to cooperate with international investigations, to former president Donald Trump’s “China virus” and “kung flu” slurs, to the unfounded and continued branding of the lab-leak hypothesis as a fringe conspiracy theory by influential news organizations and high-profile scientists – including some with financial and research ties to the Wuhan labs at the center of the lab-leak hypothesis.
Meanwhile in Congress, investigations and hearings that might be able to unearth information related to the origin of the pandemic – including from US funding agencies and those involved in academic scientific collaborations on potentially risky research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – have overwhelmingly been conducted by Republicans, with little engagement from Democrats.
It wasn’t always this way. Concerns about laboratory accidents, risky research and the proliferation of high-containment laboratories used to be a fully bipartisan issue with Democrats and Republicans jointly participating in hearings, as they did in 2014 after a serious anthrax incident at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s labs.
In those days, numerous members from both political parties came together to jointly request a series of reports by the US Government Accountability Office that have warned of the increased risk of a catastrophic accident from the worldwide proliferation of high-containment biological labs. A 2009 GAO report lists both the Democrat and Republican leaders from multiple congressional committees among the engaged requesters actively seeking answers about the safety of biological research facilities.
All these years later, the bipartisan work that led to these earlier warnings has been lost in Washington’s current divisive politics.
“We have a moral obligation to determine to the best of our ability how Sars-2 emerged to cause the worst pandemic in over 100 years,” Gerald Parker, a biosecurity expert at Texas A&M University who also serves as chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said on Twitter this week after the energy department assessment was revealed. “It is inexplicable why Congress and the administration have not established a bipartisan commission to investigate Covid origin with forensic rigor.”
Amid the growing news coverage of the new energy department assessment and the FBI director’s public comments, there were possible signs of a political shift among Democrats in Congress. The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday quoted Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer as saying: “The bottom line is we’ve got to get to the bottom of this … the Biden administration is committed to it. They have all kinds of people looking at it, and we’ll wait to see their results.”
As an investigative reporter, I have spent 15 years revealing shocking details about laboratory accidents for reports in major news organizations and my forthcoming book, Pandora’s Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World at Risk. What I have learned is that lax biosafety practices are far more common than the public and policymakers realize. And history shows that when accidents happen, labs often go to great efforts to keep their mistakes secret.
Chinese authorities and top scientists at the Wuhan lab at the center of the controversy have long said they had never possessed the Covid virus prior to the beginning of the outbreak. But the Chinese government has refused the WHO’s attempts to investigate the country’s labs or do further in-depth studies of data that might shed light on how the pandemic began.
Wray said in his interview with Fox News this week that he believes the Chinese government has been working to thwart investigations by US government agencies and their foreign partners into how the pandemic began.
The bottom line: nobody yet knows how this pandemic began, and the public and the press should scrutinize those making bold statements claiming the case is solved in favor of either of these two credible theories. Covid swept the world, killing millions and devastating the lives of everyone on this planet – and it did it without regard for political persuasion.
The world needs fewer hot takes and soundbites, and more actions that critically investigate all legitimate hypotheses – including the virus jumping from nature and the largely uninvestigated possibility of a lab accident origin.
All of us need to know how this pandemic began. Getting to the truth might help us avoid calamity in the future.
Alison Young is an investigative reporter in Washington, DC, and serves as the Curtis B Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism at University of Missouri. Her book, Pandora’s Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World at Risk, will be released in April.