US Spy Agencies: COVID-19 ‘Not a Bioweapon,’ Can’t Rule Out Lab Hypothesis

An unclassified report released Friday provided an overview of the intelligence community's assessment of the origins of COVID-19.
August 27, 2021, 7:49pm
Wuhan lab
Image: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

America’s spy agencies declassified a report Friday about their assessment of the origins of the COVID-19 virus. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that, according to its investigations, COVID-19 was not developed as a bioweapon, but said that experts within the intelligence community (IC) are split about whether or not the virus originated in a laboratory.

“We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon,” the report said. “After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19. All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”

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Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”

According to the report, four of the agencies and the National Intelligence Council think, with low confidence, that COVID-19 is a natural mutation that comes from animals. One agency said, with moderate confidence, that it was the result of a lab leak. “Analysts at 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,” the report said.

The report said that the reasons for disagreement come down to a lack of information and differences between how the agencies weigh the veracity of its intelligence.

The origins of COVID-19, of course, have been a highly contentious issue since the beginning of the pandemic. For months, right wing commentators pushed the theory that the virus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan as either a bioweapon or a gain-of-function experiment gone wrong. This hypothesis fueled anti-Asian sentiment and violence around the world, and the idea of a “Wuhan Flu” was a talking point for Donald Trump for months. The scientific community in recent months, however, has slowly come around to the idea that it is possible the virus originated in a laboratory rather than from an animal reservoir. The scientific community believes that more research is necessary.  

“The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged,” the report said. 

“China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”