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US intelligence agencies split on Covid origins, to Republican ire

Agencies agree pandemic virus is not a weapon, but diverge on whether it was engineered

US intelligence agencies have been unable to agree on the likely origin of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The agencies’ findings largely reiterate what many public health officials and researchers have suggested previously—that a natural origin is likely, but impossible to prove at present.

After examining “all available intelligence reporting and other information”, the agencies reached broad agreement that the virus was not deliberately developed to be used as a weapon, according to a summary report published on 27 August. And although the first known cases of infection with the virus were located in Wuhan, China, the agencies also agreed that “China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak”.

But while “most agencies” thought with “low confidence” that the virus was not engineered by humans at all, two agencies thought there was insufficient evidence to make a judgment.

The agencies agreed that only two hypothesis were “plausible” regarding the nature of the initial infection: “natural exposure to an infected animal [or] a laboratory-associated incident”. Five agency elements thought with low confidence that the former explanation was more likely, one thought with moderate confidence that the latter explanation was, and three were undecided.

More evidence needed

The agencies said they would be unable to give more definitive answers unless further information came to light—like clinical samples from the first Covid-19 patients.

The investigation, requested by president Joe Biden, appears to have done nothing to satisfy congressional Republicans, who said the inconclusive report was a “failure” and insisted that Congress itself investigate.

In a statement following the report, Biden said “critical information” about Covid’s origins existed in China, but that officials there had blocked access to it. “To this day, [China] continues to reject calls for transparency and withhold[s] information, even as the toll of this pandemic continue to rise,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said in a press conference on 24 August that “relying on the intelligence community for the origins study is in itself not scientific”.

Wang claimed the report was “a patchwork of so-called evidence based on predetermined conclusions” that had been assembled for “ulterior political purposes”.

Research Professional News has invited the Chinese government to comment further.

House Republicans have also written to the National Institutes of Health, asking the federal agency if it did enough to assess biosafety measures at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which it indirectly funded to do work on coronaviruses in bats. The NIH did not respond to a request for comment from Research Professional News.