The origin of the Coronavirus is still a mystery 3 years into the pandemic

WASHINGTON — An important question has eluded governments and health agencies around the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: Did the virus originate in animals or did it leak from a Chinese lab?

Now, the US Department of Energy assesses with “low confidence” that it started with a leak in the lab, according to a person familiar with the report who was not authorized to discuss it. The report was not made public.

But some in the US intelligence community disagree.

“There is no consensus right now in the US government about exactly how COVID started,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday. “There just isn’t a consensus in the intelligence community.”

The DOE’s conclusion was first reported over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, which said the classified report was based on new intelligence and noted an update to a document in 2021. The DOE oversees a national network in the labs.

White House officials on Monday declined to confirm press reports about the probe.

In 2021, officials released an intelligence report summary that said four members of the US intelligence community believed with little confidence that the virus was first transmitted from an animal to a humans, and a fifth believed with moderate confidence that the first human infection was linked to. a lab.

While some scientists are open to the lab-leak theory, others continue to believe that the virus came from animals, mutated, and jumped to humans – just as viruses have done in the past. Experts say the true source of the pandemic may not be known for years — if ever.


The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report. All 18 offices of the US intelligence community have access to the information used by the DOE in reaching its assessment.

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, said she wasn’t sure what new intelligence the agencies had, but it was “reasonable to know” it was related to activities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. . He said a 2018 research proposal co-authored by scientists there and their US collaborators “describes a blueprint for viruses like COVID.”

“Less than two years ago, such a virus caused an explosion in the city,” he said.

The Wuhan institute has been studying coronaviruses for years, in part because of widespread concerns — tracing back to SARS — that coronaviruses could be the source of the next pandemic.

No intelligence agency has said they believe the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was intentionally released. The unknown 2021 summary is clear on this point, saying: “We judge that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon.”

“Laboratory accidents happen with an alarming frequency. Many people never hear about lab accidents because they are not discussed in public,” said Chan, who co-authored a book about search for the origins of COVID-19. Such accidents “highlight a need to make work with high-risk pathogens more transparent and more accountable.”

Last year, the World Health Organization recommended a deeper investigation into a possible lab accident. Chan said he hoped the latest report would spark further investigations in the United States.

China has called the suggestion that COVID-19 came from a Chinese laboratory “baseless.”


Many scientists believe that the animal-to-human coronavirus theory remains more plausible. They believe that it arose in the wild and jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another animal.

In a 2021 research paper in the journal Cell, scientists say the COVID-19 virus is the ninth documented coronavirus to infect humans — and all previous ones from animals.

Two studies, published last year in the journal Science, reinforce the animal origin theory. The research found that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was likely the first epicenter. Scientists have concluded that the virus likely spilled from animals to humans on two separate occasions.

“The scientific literature has nothing but original research articles that support a natural origin of this virus pandemic,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who has extensively studied origin of COVID-19.

He said the fact that others in the intelligence community are looking at the same information as the DOE and “it’s apparently not moving the needle speaks volumes.” He said he takes such intelligence assessments with a grain of salt because he doesn’t think the people who make them “have the scientific expertise … to really understand the most important evidence they need to understand .”

The US should be more transparent and release new intelligence that apparently shakes the DOE, Worobey said.


The DOE’s conclusion comes as House Republicans use their new majority powers to investigate all aspects of the pandemic, including its origin, as well as what they believe are efforts by officials to hide the fact that it leaked from a lab in Wuhan. . Earlier this month, Republicans sent letters to Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, Health Secretary Xavier Beccera and others as part of their investigative efforts.

The now-retired Fauci, who served as the nation’s top infectious disease expert under both Republican and Democratic presidents, called the GOP’s criticism nonsense.

Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked the Biden administration to give Congress “a full and complete” briefing on the report and the evidence behind it.

Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, emphasized that President Joe Biden believes it is important to know what happened “so that we can better prevent future pandemics” but that such research “must be done safely and safe way and as transparent as possible to the rest of the world.”


AP reporters Farnoush Amiri, Nomaan Merchant and Seung Min Kim contributed. Ungar reported from Louisville, Kentucky


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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