FBI Blows Open Schism in Intelligence Community Over COVID Lab Leak Theory

The public admission that the FBI believes it is "most likely" that COVID-19 emerged into the human population from a Chinese lab has laid bare a schism among intelligence agencies regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following a call by President Joe Biden for an investigation into the pandemic's origins, a growing number within the U.S. intelligence community have adopted the theory that the virus may have spread into the human population via a laboratory mishap.

Cases of COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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

However, the prevailing opinion among intelligence analysts and scientists appears to remain that COVID-19 likely spread into the human population by jumping the species barrier from livestock in a wet market.

Christopher Wray FBI director Covid lab leak
Main image, FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on July 12, 2017. Inset, the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 3, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, ahead of the FBI disclosure, John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said the intelligence community remains divided on the matter.

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said the agency "has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan."

He added that he was referring to "a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab." The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been implicated as the source of the virus.

Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed the suggestions—the second time this week she has done so—describing them as a "politicization of origin tracing."

"By rehashing the lab leak theory, the U.S. will not succeed in discrediting China, and instead, it will only hurt its own credibility," she said.

Wray also claimed that the Chinese government had been "doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate" the work of U.S. and foreign investigators to understand the origins of COVID-19—a claim Beijing has also repeatedly denied.

"The last thing China wants is to get blamed for a lab leak," Rebecca Grant, a national security analyst at IRIS Research, told Newsweek. "China's a propaganda state; they can't stand the answer.

"I'm sure it leaked out of that lab; might have been an accident, might have been someone put the garbage out wrong."

Despite Wray's claims of obfuscation on the part of the Chinese government, the Department of Energy's revised assessment was reportedly issued in light of new intelligence and evidence gathering. It was previously said to be undecided on how the global pandemic began.

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.

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.

John Kirby press conference White House
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the White House in Washington D.C. on February 27, 2023. He said "there is just not an intelligence community consensus" on the origins of COVID-19. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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

"The intelligence community has over a dozen different agencies, and they all have their own process for looking at information and reaching a consensus within their agency," Grant explained. "So it's common for the intel community to disagree on how confident they are on an assessment."

Fielding questions from reporters following the Wall Street Journal article, Kirby said: "There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started. There is just not an intelligence community consensus."

However, according to Grant, the fact that Wray was willing to even voice the opinion of the FBI on the pandemic's origins is notable.

"The intel community is still only somewhat confident that the Earth is round and not flat. They always hedge their bets," she joked. "So when are willing to go and even articulate it, that's a very strong sign [of their belief]."