What the Intelligence Community's Report Said About Lab Leak COVID-19 Theory

The Intelligence Community's report on the origin of COVID-19 neither blamed the Wuhan Institute of Virology nor did it exonerate the Chinese lab.

After 90 days of "redoubling" efforts to bring the world closer to knowing how the pandemic began, the Intelligence Community still couldn't reach a consensus on the origin. While much of the report is still classified, the summary that was made public show the lab leak hypothesis couldn't be ruled out, leaving the world essentially in the same place that it was months ago.

What the Intelligence Community did come to a consensus on was that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies coalesced around the belief that it wasn't genetically engineered, although two agencies believe there isn't "sufficient evidence" to assess that possibility either way.

At least one agency that contributed to the report said it had "moderate confidence" the pandemic began as a laboratory-associated incident, likely stemming from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Four other agencies said they felt the pandemic was naturally occurring and three were unable to side with either hypothesis because some analysts favored one origin or the other and some thought both were equally likely.

To reach a "conclusive assessment" of the origin of COVID-19, the Intelligence Community said it would likely need China's cooperation. However, the report noted China's resistance to further investigations, as well as its reluctance to share information and blame the United States for the outbreak.

"These actions reflect, in part, China's government's own uncertainty about where an investigation could lead as well as its frustration the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China," the report said.

Early on during the pandemic, scientists dismissed a lab leak as a fringe conspiracy theory that should be avoided because of the blame it could put on Chinese scientists. While many scientists still believe it's the less likely explanation for the pandemic, investigations into all possible theories have gained support in recent months.

Much of what has fueled the recent boost in support for looking into the lab leak theory are reports that Chinese scientists were ill with flu-like symptoms in the fall of 2019. China has denied that any researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had COVID-19, which, if true, would make it very difficult for the virus to have escaped from the lab.

The WHO-China joint mission was tasked with trying to identify the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. After weeks of research, the team determined that the most likely scenario was that COVID-19 evolved naturally, jumping from animals to humans, and the least likely scenario was that the virus originated in a laboratory.

covid-19 origin intelligence community report lab leak
After another investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Intelligence Community still has a number of questions they'd like to have answered. Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3. hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the team had issues accessing data while in China and some raised concerns that the report was based on information China provided.

During an interview with CBS' Lesley Stahl, Peter Daszak, who was on the WHO-China mission team, said there was Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff in the room "throughout our stay." He said they were present to make sure "everything went smoothly from the China side."

Stahl pushed back, saying that Chinese officials may have been in the room to make sure scientists and researchers weren't "telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Daszak denied there was reason to believe the people they were working with were covering up anything and said the team had "no problem" distinguishing between a political and scientific statement.

Further efforts to investigate the origin of COVID-19 have stalled, according to experts who were convened by the WHO to research the issue. In a commentary in the journal Nature, the team reiterated that their Chinese counterparts were "reluctant to share raw data" over concerns for patient confidentiality and pushed for further investigations.

"The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible. Understanding the origins of a devastating pandemic is a global priority, grounded in science," the team wrote.

China denied it was at fault for the process stalling and Fu Cong, a director-general in China's Foreign Ministry, said the country has "always supported and will continue to participate in the science-based origin tracing efforts."

Chinese officials have also taken issue with the Intelligence Community's role in origin tracing. Cong said on Wednesday that blaming China for the pandemic would be met with a "counterattack."