Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
The US Department of Energy’s assessment that Covid-19 likely arose due to a laboratory accident in China has reignited a fierce debate and drawn attention to the question of how the pandemic began.
But the “low confidence” determination, made in a recently updated classified report, has raised more questions than answers, as the department has not publicly provided any new evidence to support this claim. It also generated a fierce reaction from China.
“We urge the United States to respect science and facts, stop politicizing this issue, stop its intelligence- and political-based search for origins,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Wednesday. .
The Department of Energy’s assessment is part of a larger US effort in which intelligence agencies were asked by President Joe Biden in 2021 to examine the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
This overall intelligence community assessment has been inconclusive, and then, as now, there is not yet a definitive link established between the virus and any specific animal or other pathway – as China continues to to obstruct international investigations into the origins of the virus.
Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council assessed with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans through natural exposure, while one assessed with moderate confidence that the pandemic was the result of an accident related to the laboratory. According to a declassified version of the 2021 report, three other elements of the intelligence community could not agree on either explanation without additional information.
THE majority of agencies remain undecided or lean towards the virus having a natural origin – a hypothesis also widely favored by expert scientists in the field. But the change in the US Department of Energy has now deepened the split in the intelligence community, especially as the director of the FBI this week publicly commented for the first time on his agency’s similar determination made with “medium confidence.”
Intelligence agencies can make assessments with a low, medium or high level of confidence. A low confidence assessment generally means that the information obtained is not sufficiently reliable or is too fragmentary to make a more definitive judgment.
And while the assessment and new commentary have brought the theory back into the spotlight, neither agency has released any evidence or information to support their determinations. This raises crucial questions about their basis – and shines a spotlight on gaping and outstanding unknowns and the need for further research.
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Scientists largely believe the virus most likely emerged from a natural spillover from an infected animal to humans, like many viruses before it, although they widely agree that more research is needed on all options. Many have also questioned the lack of published data to back up the latest claim.
Virologist Thea Fischer, who traveled to Wuhan in 2021 as part of a World Health Organization (WHO) origins investigation and continues to be part of the WHO’s ongoing tracing efforts , said it was “very important” that any new assessments related to the origin of the virus are backed by evidence.
“(These are) strong accusations against a public research laboratory in China and they cannot stand up without substantial evidence,” said Fischer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.
“I hope they will share with the WHO soon so that the evidence can be known and assessed by international health experts, just like all other evidence regarding the origin of the pandemic.”
A senior US intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, which first published the Department of Energy’s new assessment, that the updated assessment was made in light of new intelligence, further study of the academic literature and in consultation with experts outside government.
The idea that the virus could have emerged from a laboratory accident became more prominent as the spotlight shone on coronavirus research being carried out at local facilities, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was further enhanced amid a failure to find a ‘smoking gun’ showing which animal could have transmitted the virus to people at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan – the location linked to a number of first known cases – amid the limitations of follow-up research.
Some experts who have been closely involved in reviewing existing information, however, are skeptical of the new assessment giving more weight to the theory.
“Given that much of the data we have points to an overflow event in the Huanan market in late 2019, I doubt there is anything very significant or new information that would change our current understanding” , said David Robertson, a professor in the School of Infection and Immunity at the University of Glasgow, who participated in recent search with results that support the natural origin theory.
He noted that the locations of the first market-centric human cases, positive environmental samples and confirmation that live animals susceptible to the virus were for sale are among the evidence supporting the natural origins theory – while there is no data to support a lab leak.
“The breadth of this evidence is continually being lost (in media discussions)… when in fact we know a lot about what happened, and arguably more than other outbreaks,” he said. declared.
Efforts to understand how the pandemic began have been further complicated by China’s lack of transparency – especially as the question of origin has turned into another bitter point of contention in rising US tensions. -Chinese in recent years.
Beijing has blocked strong, long-term international field investigations and refused to allow a lab audit, which could provide clarity, and has been reluctant to share details and national research data to uncover the cause. However, he repeatedly maintains that he has been transparent and cooperative with the WHO.
Chinese authorities have carefully vetted the only WHO-backed investigation it has allowed on the ground in 2021, citing disease control measures to restrict visiting experts to their hotel rooms for half their time. travel and prevent them from sharing meals with their Chinese counterparts – cutting off an opportunity for more informal information sharing.
Citing data protection, Beijing also refused to allow verification of its own investigative measures, such as testing blood samples stored in Wuhan or combing through hospital data for “zero patients”. potential, by researchers outside the country.
China has strenuously denied that the virus emerged from a lab accident and has repeatedly tried to claim that it could have arrived in the country for the initial outbreak from elsewhere – including from an American laboratory, without offering any evidence to support this claim.
But a senior WHO official just last month publicly called for “more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance the studies that need to take place in China” – including studies on markets and farms that may have been involved.
“These studies need to be conducted in China and we need the cooperation of our colleagues there to advance our knowledge,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, during a meeting. press conference.
Asked about the Department of Energy’s assessment by CNN, a WHO representative said the organization and its tracing advisory body “will continue to review all available scientific evidence that would help us make advance knowledge on the origin of SARS CoV 2 and we call on China and the scientific community to undertake the necessary studies in this direction.
“Until we have more evidence, all hypotheses are still on the table,” the rep said.