Why US experts can’t agree on the origin of COVID-19

WOMENNews of the US Department of Energy’s decision on the origins of COVID-19 has raised new questions about the US intelligence community’s investigation into the global pandemic that has killed an estimated 6.85 million people. .

The Department of Energy, which operates many national laboratories, has concluded with low confidence that COVID-19 was most likely caused by a leak from a laboratory in China. Wall Street Journal reports on Sunday, citing anonymous sources. The magazine reported that the Department of Energy’s new decision has been classified. Previously, the agency had yet to decide on the cause of the pandemic.

“Knowing how this pandemic started is critical to protecting our people,” said Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons Defense. ta. “The fact that the intelligence community of the United States of America believes that both scenarios are reasonable is enough to cause us to change some of our policies.”

Eight agencies, plus the National Intelligence Council, have investigated what caused the virus, according to a report. summary report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released in August 2021. Details of these investigations, including the specific methods and sources used to make the decisions, and even the names of relevant agencies, remain hidden from the public.

Based on what we know from that report, the intelligence community remains divided on the issue. To date, the two agencies believe that the most likely cause of COVID-19 is a laboratory leak, at low and moderate confidence levels. Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council have concluded with low confidence that COVID-19 emerged as a result of natural transmission from animals to humans, and two agencies have yet to make a decision. Names of agencies were not included in the report, and US officials declined to provide details when asked by reporters and lawmakers.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters Monday at the White House: “The president made it a priority to find the source of COVID when he took office. “He has an entire government effort designed to do that. There is currently no consensus within the US government on exactly how COVID started. There is no consensus of the intelligence community.”

The Department of Energy news comes ahead of a House Oversight Committee roundtable on Tuesday titled “Preparing for the Future by Learning from the Past: Reviewing COVID Policy Decisions.” . House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer told reporters Monday that he will try to declassify the Department of Energy’s assessment and share it with the public, according to the report. axis. According to Weber, disclosing such information in a way that protects sources and methods can take weeks.

Here’s what we know about the split in the US intelligence community over what causes COVID-19.

Laboratory leak theory

Together with the Department of Energy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation supports the laboratory leak theory, according to magazine report and a word CNN, which TIME has not verified. The FBI did not directly comment on either outlet’s report.

It is the only agency in the intelligence community to give a rating of “moderate confidence”, indicating that it is based on information reliable enough to overcome a “low confidence” result.

A summary of the 2021 report reveals that an agency has determined with moderate confidence that the virus has entered the human population following “a laboratory-related incident, possibly involving laboratory testing”. testing, animal handling or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology”. The document does not name the agency.

Natural transmission theory

The National Intelligence Council and four agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, which have not been publicly named, have determined that COVID-19 has the potential to spread to humans through natural transmission from animals. report summary. All five of those agencies made their rulings with low confidence.

Experts who support this theory cite their conclusions about the “ignorance of Chinese officials,” as well as historical precedent for new infectious diseases that originate in animals.

For example, the The SARS epidemic broke out from 2002 to 2004, which has infected around 8,000 people and killed at least 774, is descended from civet civets in southern China. That outbreak was caused by a coronavirus—the same family of pathogens that includes COVID-19.

The disease known as COVID-19 was first acknowledged after the World Health Organization was notified of several cases of mysterious viral pneumonia in the central city of Wuhan. Country. According to WHOChinese authorities said some of the patients initially worked at a seafood market there, about 40 minutes from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has long conducted research on the coronavirus.

Still on the fence

By the time the summary of the government report is released in 2021, there are three public intelligence agencies that are still undecided between the laboratory leak hypothesis and the natural transmission hypothesis. According to magazineof recent reports, one of which is the Department of Energy, is currently supporting the laboratory leak theory.

The magazine And CNN reported that the Central Intelligence Agency is one of two groups remaining undecided, a fact TIME has not verified, while the other remains unknown.

Why are they divided?

According to the 2021 report, the division between agencies is largely driven by the importance of experts at these agencies to the various intelligence and available scientific evidence—particularly the due to the limited clinical samples and epidemiological data they had to work with. Weber, now a senior fellow at the Strategic Risks Council, said China was not cooperating meaningfully with the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19. “It’s clear that they are hiding information, giving false information,” he said.

But divisions within the US government could also lead to other differences. According to Weber, some intelligence agencies, such as the Department of Energy, run labs that use experts and advanced technology, meaning they have access to more complex science than other agencies. don’t have those resources. And while agencies have the ability to work with much of the same basic information, it is possible that some agencies have access to information that others do not.

“We don’t always know that every agency receives the most sensitive information,” he said. “The hope is that they will share all the information they have, but I’m not sure that has happened.”

Even if the virus is naturally transmitted into human populations, the precedent caused by older diseases suggests it could take more than a decade to determine which species may be responsible.

Even then, they don’t know for sure 100%. Furthermore, China does not appear to be cooperating with the WHO investigation. That means it’s hard to know for sure where COVID-19 originated, and divisions within the US government are likely to continue.

—With reporting by Brian Bennett

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