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An updated intelligence assessment about the origins of the Covid-19 virus has reopened the long-simmering and unsolved debate about how the virus came to be – and will fuel a new committee House Republicans have created to investigate the issue.

While scientists still predominantly believe the virus occurred naturally in animals and spread to humans in an outbreak at a market in Wuhan, China, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence is now the second tentacle of the US government intelligence apparatus, along with the FBI, that endorses the “lab leak theory” – the minority view that the virus occurred as a result of work in a Chinese lab.

The DOE office is one of 18 government agencies that make up the intelligence community, which are under the umbrella of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Most of the intelligence community remains either split or leaning toward the natural occurrence theory that scientific investigations have concluded as most likely. But without conclusive evidence, no one has been able to reject the lab leak theory entirely.

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Biden's national security adviser responds to new report on Covid-19's origin
01:19 - Source: CNN

The theory has been the subject of much focus by Republican lawmakers, and polling in 2021 suggested a majority of Americans believe the Chinese government had something to do with the origins of the virus. Asked whether they believe the virus originated from a laboratory leak in China or from human contact with an infected animal, about half (52%) said that they believed a lab leak was responsible.

Now in the House majority, Republicans have formed a special subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee specifically to investigate, among other things, China’s role in the early spread of the virus and US government dollars that helped fund some research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the research facility at the center of the lab leak theory.

Lack of answers about the origins of Covid-19 and an accumulation of circumstantial evidence have led some scientists, the Biden administration and the World Health Organization to argue that the lab leak theory needs more study. If only China was cooperating.

US lawmakers who have pushed the lab leak theory seized on reporting about the new Department of Energy assessment, although the details of what led to the assessment are not yet public.

“I’m pleased the Department of Energy has finally reached the same conclusion that I had already come to,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri demanded more information about the Department of Energy’s assessment and promised to push for more such reports to be declassified.

Still a minority view

The change in opinion by the Energy Department’s intelligence office is far from a total backing of the “lab leak” theory.

For starters, the conclusion was reached only with “low confidence,” as opposed to medium or high confidence.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Natasha Bertrand explain the confidence levels:

Intelligence agencies can make assessments with either low, medium or high confidence. A low confidence assessment generally means that the information obtained is not reliable enough or is too fragmented to make a more definitive analytic judgment or that there is not enough information available to draw a more robust conclusion.

It’s not clear what exactly changed things for the officials involved in the assessment for the Department of Energy, but whatever it was has not convinced the majority of intelligence agencies.

According to a two-page list of takeaways from the initial 2021 intelligence community review of Covid-19 origins ordered by President Joe Biden, four components of the intelligence community and the National Intelligence Council believed, like most scientists, that “natural exposure” caused the virus.

Three elements of the intelligence community did not believe there was enough evidence to make a determination. And one agency, which CNN has reported is the FBI, had medium confidence in the lab leak theory.

There is agreement on some key points

While the intelligence community remains very much split on what led to the virus, they were completely aligned on three key points when they first issued a two-page unclassified report in 2021:

  • The virus was not developed as a biological weapon.
  • Most of the agencies believe the virus was not genetically engineered. (Two agencies did not think there was sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way.)
  • Chinese officials did not have “foreknowledge of the virus” before the initial outbreak.

Something everyone seems to agree on is that China has not been cooperative in figuring out how the virus evolved.

Previous investigations have not answered the question

CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta did a long-form report in 2021 about all of the available evidence and talked to multiple people who had assessed the available evidence. A. Chris Gajilan has an extensive report on what is to be learned from all of that, and how a key WHO assessment was flawed due to a lack of cooperation from the Chinese government.

Dr. Anthony Fauci – the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whom Republicans have told they will call before Congress to testify about the origins of the disease – has consistently repeated he believes the virus most likely occurred naturally, since other, similar viruses have evolved that way.

But he has been careful to add that it’s important to keep an “open mind” about the lab leak possibility.

An open and high-level commission could help

While there are multiple theories about how it happened, there is also a realization that we may never know.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that we will ever get a real answer,” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen said Monday morning.

He argued the US government should get ahead of politically divisive theories and empanel a bipartisan group to write a definitive and public report.

“We have never had a Covid commission like the 9/11 Commission,” he said. “I think we desperately need it. Because more Americans have died of Covid than have died in every American war since the American Revolution, which is an astonishing number; that is a major national security issue.”

China should ‘be more honest’

The State Department renewed its criticism of China’s openness about the origins of the virus on Monday.

“If we’re going to do something to strengthen the World Health Organization, then we’re going to have to push China to be more active in it, and to of course, be more honest about what happened three years ago in Wuhan with the origin of the Covid-19 crisis,” US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns told reporters.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, in separate comments to reporters, accused China of “blocking from the beginning international investigators and members of the global health community from accessing information that they need to understand the origins of Covid-19.”

‘Regardless, we know the next step’

CNN’s John King asked Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, why it matters, at this point, where the virus came from.

Ranney argued that if the virus came from a lab leak, it means the world needs better biosecurity protocols.

If the virus came from animal-to-human transmission, we need to be able to respond more quickly to outbreaks.

“Regardless, we know the next step,” Ranney said. “While we’re focusing on where Covid-19 started, we’re not spending time about how to keep America from ever having to go through the last three years again.”

‘The evidence isn’t there’

King also talked to Beth Sanner, the former deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration during the Trump administration, about the report.

“If you want to blame somebody in terms of how this all unfolded, it’s very clear that China hid this, did not move quickly enough, and now is blocking investigation,” she said.

But she said it’s important to look at the entire analysis of the intelligence community, which is based on evidence. And the evidence does not conclusively point to any one theory.

“We don’t just take information or just take a feeling and turn it into analysis,” she said. “We’re actually doing a rigorous process and that’s why we don’t know yet. The evidence isn’t there.”