COVID Lab Leak Revelations: What We Know and What We Don't

A new report has revealed that intelligence analysts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) concluded that COVID-19 most likely came from a Chinese laboratory, making it the second U.S. government agency to adopt such a position on the emergence of the pandemic.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal wrote, citing sources who have read the new classified document, that the department had found with "low confidence" that the deadly virus could have emerged from a mishap at a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The DOE was previously undecided on how the global pandemic began. The updated report was said to have been issued to the White House and members of Congress, in light of new intelligence and evidence gathering.

Members of the U.S. intelligence community have come to different conclusions about the origins of the virus. A prior intelligence assessment of the origins of COVID-19, based on information up to the end of August 2021, gave three competing views on the matter.

Wuhan lab COVID-19
An aerial view shows the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China on April 17, 2020. Opened in 2018, it has been accused by some U.S. officials of being the source of COVID-19. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

It said analysts at four intelligence agencies had concluded, also with "low confidence," that the virus emerged in the human population likely through exposure to an infected animal, while one agency had "moderate confidence" that it was likely a laboratory-associated incident.

It added that three members of the U.S. intelligence community remained unable to side with either theory.

Newsweek learned on March 27, 2020, and corroborated with two U.S. officials, that U.S. intelligence revised an assessment in January that year, in which it "judged that the outbreak probably occurred naturally" to include the possibility that the new coronavirus emerged "accidentally" as a result of "unsafe laboratory practices" in Wuhan.

The classified report, titled "China: Origins of COVID-19 Outbreak Remain Unknown," ruled out that the disease was genetically engineered or released intentionally as a biological weapon.

"We have no credible evidence to indicate SARS-CoV-2 was released intentionally or was created as a biological weapon," the report found. "It is very unlikely that researchers or the Chinese government would intentionally release such a dangerous virus, especially within China, without possessing a known and effective vaccine."

Every scientist interviewed by Newsweek for the article also categorically rejected the notion that the virus was intentionally released. The 2021 intelligence report reached the same conclusion, stating that analysis of the virus suggested it was not genetically engineered, but noted it had low confidence in this.

"Genetic engineering techniques can make modifications difficult to identify and we have gaps in our knowledge of naturally occurring coronaviruses," it explained.

According to the Wall Street Journal report, the new analysis by the DOE aligns its view with that of the FBI. The 2021 intelligence assessment did not name which agencies had formed each conclusion.

The FBI could not be reached for comment. A DOE spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the report when approached by Newsweek.

COVID-19 lab Wuhan China
Laboratory technicians wearing personal protective equipment work on samples to be tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Wuhan, China on August 4, 2021. A new report suggests a growing belief in the intelligence community that the virus emerged as a result of a mishap in a Chines laboratory. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Cases of COVID-19 infection first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, before spreading throughout the world. The virus has caused the deaths of more than 1.1 million people in the U.S. alone, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in March 2021, which coalesced around two likely scenarios but did not reach a definitive conclusion, he said in a May 2021 statement.

Biden then asked the intelligence community to conduct a "90-day sprint" that resulted in the 2021 intelligence assessment, which concluded that the virus "probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure" in Wuhan, but remained divided on its origin.

Appearing on CNN on Sunday, Jake Sullivan, the White House's national security adviser, declined to confirm or deny the Wall Street Journal report, but said Biden had called on every part of the intelligence community to investigate the matter.

He added that the president had "specifically requested that the national labs, which are part of the Energy Department, be brought into this assessment because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here."

The DOE spokesperson said: "The Department of Energy continues to support the thorough, careful, and objective work of our intelligence professionals in investigating the origins of COVID-19, as the president directed."

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market Wuhan China COVID-19
A security guard stands outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China on January 24, 2020. A 2022 study found that the first recorded cases of COVID-19 appeared to coalesce round the market, lending itself to the theory that the virus originated in an infected animal. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

The prevailing opinion among intelligence analysts and scientists remains that COVID-19 spread into the human population by jumping the species barrier from livestock in a wet market that had been infected by a contagious bat.

A July 2022 study concluded by analyzing where the locations of the earliest human cases were concentrated that the virus likely infected humans via the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

It suggested that the first cases were among people with a direct link to the market or mapped geographically within its vicinity.

However, a definitive answer as to the exact origins of the virus remains elusive. The Biden administration has previously criticized China for preventing access for outside investigators and withholding information.

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, called for the U.S. to "stop defaming China" in response to the new report, according to the New York Times, adding that the science around the pandemic should "not be politicized."