COVID-19 was probably the result of a leak from a laboratory, according to a newly updated classified report from the United States Department of Energy obtained by the Wall Street Journal newspaper.
The new coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world, so far killing nearly 7 million people. It also created turmoil in the global economy as countries closed borders and ordered lockdowns to try and curb the spread of a virus against which there were, initially, no effective vaccines.
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The judgement for the latest classified report arose out of new intelligence and was made with “low confidence”, the Journal reported on Sunday. The energy department oversees a network of US laboratories, including some that undertake advanced biological research.
The latest findings suggest a change in the view of the US energy department, which said previously it was undecided on how the virus emerged. The officials declined to elaborate on the intelligence that had prompted the department to change its position. It now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in saying the virus probably spread after a mishap at a laboratory, a conclusion the FBI reached in 2021 with “moderate confidence”.
Four US intelligence agencies believe with “low confidence” that COVID-19 took place through natural transmission, while two others remain undecided, the Journal added.
Despite the agencies’ differing analyses, the update reaffirmed an existing consensus that COVID-19 was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons programme, the people who had read the classified report told the newspaper.
The report, extending to five pages, was prepared for the White House and members of Congress, the Journal said.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there were still a “variety of views” on the issue.
Speaking on CNN on Sunday, he stressed US President Joe Biden had repeatedly asked the intelligence community to invest in trying to find out as much as possible about how the pandemic started.
“President Biden specifically requested that the national labs, which are part of the Energy Department, be brought into this assessment because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here,” Sullivan said.
In mid-February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) promised to do everything possible “until we get the answer” on the origins of the virus, denying a report that suggested the agency had abandoned its investigation.
After much delay, a WHO team travelled to Wuhan, China, in early 2021 to visit the Huanan market where the first cluster of cases emerged and which was closed and cleaned soon after the virus began to spread. Working alongside Chinese scientists, they also visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a biosecurity lab where researchers had been working on bats.
The investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not sufficiently evaluating the lab-leak theory, which it deemed “extremely unlikely”. It said the most likely explanation was that the virus originated in a bat before crossing to an intermediary animal and making the jump to humans.
China has accused the US of politicising the investigation and for ‘scapegoating’ the country after former US President Donald Trump dubbed SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, the “Chinese virus”.
Finding the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is seen as crucial in order to better fight or even prevent another pandemic.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has insisted that all hypotheses remain on the table and called on China to provide further access to investigate.