US intelligence agencies have failed to reach a conclusion on whether Covid-19 first spread to humans through animals or because of an accident at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, as the debate over the pandemic’s origins continues to rage.
Joe Biden, the US president, asked his spy chiefs three months ago to reassess how the virus first emerged and whether Chinese scientists were to blame.
A full report on the agencies’ findings was presented to Biden earlier this week. A one-page summary of that report published on Friday said the US intelligence community remains split on the core question, with one agency believing it emerged through a lab leak, four believing it came from animals and three others unable to decide.
“China’s co-operation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of Covid-19,” the summary said. “Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”
Biden said in a statement on Friday that while the review had concluded, “we will do everything we can to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world, so that we can take every necessary precaution to prevent it from happening again”.
He also urged China to co-operate with efforts to understand the virus’s origins, and said the US and its partners would continue to press Beijing to do so.
“Critical information about the origins of this pandemic exists in the People’s Republic of China, yet from the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it,” Biden said.
Most scientists say the virus probably originated in bats and spread to humans through another species of animal.
Donald Trump, the former president, and Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state, have claimed the virus may instead have emerged from the Wuhan lab — arguments that were dismissed for months as conspiracy theories.
But with scientists unable to find which species was the intermediary, attention has once again focused on the possibility of a lab leak.
The theory was bolstered earlier this year when reports suggested three researchers at the Wuhan lab became sick with Covid-like symptoms in November 2019, before the first official case was documented. Days later Biden ordered his intelligence chiefs to reassess the evidence for both theories and get closer to a firm conclusion about the disease’s origins.
Three months later, US intelligence agencies now believe the first cases did emerge in November 2019, weeks before China officially acknowledged the new disease. They added that the first cluster of known cases occurred in December in Wuhan.
However, they remain unsure what caused the virus to jump into humans.
All agencies ruled out the theory that China developed the virus as a biological weapon, and that Chinese officials had any knowledge of the virus before it emerged in humans in 2019.
This lack of prior knowledge was enough to persuade officials at four US intelligence agencies that the disease spread naturally to humans through animals, though all said they had “low confidence” over their conclusion.
One unnamed agency said it had “moderate confidence” that the virus instead came from the Wuhan lab, given the inherently risky nature of the work going on there.
Scientists at the Wuhan lab have worked on bat coronaviruses for years, even manipulating their genetic code to see if and how they might jump to humans. Such work also goes on in the US, and is now under scrutiny as critics argue that it poses too high a risk of starting a new pandemic.