On May 26, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the Intelligence Community (IC) to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, mandating an initial report be filed 90 days from the time of that announcement. Principally, the agencies were tasked with assessing whether it is more likely that the virus came from "natural exposure to an infected animal" or from "a laboratory-associated incident."
An August 2021 declassified summary from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) summarized the IC's assessment up to that time, referring to individual intelligence agencies as "elements":
Four IC elements and the National Intelligence Council assess with low confidence that the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus—a virus that probably would be more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2. …
One IC element assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. …
Analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely.
In February 2023, two things happened that brought that intelligence assessment back into the spotlight. First, on Feb. 26, 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) intelligence apparatus had originally been part of the "unable to coalesce around either explanation" group, but had recently changed its position in favor of a laboratory incident.
The DOE, the Journal reported, now assessed with "low confidence" that a laboratory-associated incident was the "most likely" source of the first human COVID-19 infection. Such a change joined the DOE to the one IC element previously mentioned in the DNI report that had "moderate confidence" in a laboratory-incident origin.
The second revelation, also made in the Journal's reporting, was the identification of the FBI as the agency reporting "moderate confidence." In a Feb. 28, 2023, interview with Fox News' Brett Bair, FBI Director Chris Wray confirmed that fact:
The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan … Here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.
Reporting on these two developments, hailed by some as proof of the failure of animal spillover hypotheses, often hints or implies that scientific analysis informed these agencies' assessments or shifts in asssessment. It is not clear, however, what type of scientific analyses, if any, informed these intelligence-based assessments.
No Details Offered by Department of Energy
The Department of Energy has an Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence that, as the Intelligence Community website states, is "responsible for all intelligence and counterintelligence activities throughout the DOE complex, including nearly 30 offices nationwide." As described on that website, its "distinctive contribution to national security is the ability to leverage DOE's unmatched scientific and technological expertise. …"
At the time of the August 2021 unclassified Intelligence Community summary, the DOE was one of the three agencies described as "unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information." According to The Wall Street Journal, a document recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress showed that the DOE "has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak," and that the change in position was "the result of new intelligence," and that the agency arrived at this view with "low confidence."
Past that, the agency has disclosed nothing in terms of how, or under what circumstances, it reached its new conclusion, or the contents of the alleged new intelligence. Without any of these details, the importance of the DOE's shift in assessment is hard for independent researchers and journalists to weigh. "U.S. officials," the Journal reported, "declined to give details on the fresh intelligence and analysis that led the Energy Department to change its position."
FBI's Assessment Is Based on 'Inherently Risky Nature of Work'
In the August 2021 IC summary, the position of the agency we now know to be the FBI was described as an "IC element [that] assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology."
A more detailed October 2021 IC report on COVID's origins indicated, without naming them, that FBI analysts came to their conclusion based on evidence indicating that risky research was occurring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and that there had long been safety concerns about the lab's operation:
These analysts place emphasis on academic articles authored by WIV employees indicating that WIV scientists conducted research on other coronaviruses under what these analysts consider to be inadequate biosafety conditions that could have led to opportunities for a laboratory-associated incident.
Besides the statements made by Wray, this is the most recent information we have on the FBI's conclusion. In other words, the FBI's conclusion — as explained to the public — is not dominantly based on scientific knowledge of, or evidence derived from, fields like virology or epidemiology, but on knowledge about proper laboratory safety.
Intelligence Assessments and Circumstantial Evidence
According to a CNN source, "the new assessment from the Department of Energy is similar to information from a House Republican Intelligence Committee report released last year on the origins of the virus." That House report, like the FBI, focused on reports of bad safety conditions and potentially dangerous research happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it also alleged evidence pertaining to a laboratory incident occurring there in February 2019. The evidence underlying the specific claim of a February incident has been challenged.
The assessment of the FBI is explicitly based on concerns about "inadequate biosafety conditions that could have led to opportunities for a laboratory-associated incident," and on literature reviews suggestive of possible dangerous research conducted in Wuhan.
If the DOE assessment update and the House Republican Intelligence Committee report are indeed similar, then the assessments of both the FBI and DOE are not rooted in a scientific analysis of the virus or mechanisms linking SARS-CoV-2 to the WIV. They are circumstantial arguments about conditions being ideal for a potential laboratory release.
Reporting on the updated assessment by the DOE and the revelation of the FBI's stance has nonetheless strongly implied that their findings are rooted in scientific evidence. "The Energy Department's conclusion … is significant," the Journal reported, "because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of U.S. national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research." The importance of the FBI's scientific credentials were also cited by both Wray (in the Feb. 28 Fox News interview) and the Journal as making the agency's conclusion particularly significant.
Whatever changed the DOE's mind did not sway other IC agencies, all of which reportedly had access to the DOE's new information as well.
The Scientific Evidence
The Journal framed the Intelligence Community's interest in a lab-leak scenario as a symptom of a lack of scientific progress among scientists seeking to prove the case for a natural origin:
At first, the dominant view was that the virus likely arose naturally when the virus leapt from an animal to a human, as had happened in the past. But as time elapsed and no animal host was found, there has been greater focus on coronavirus research in Wuhan and the potential for an accidental laboratory leak.
Other media outlets have similarly reported on the COVID origins controversy as one in which science has been unsuccessful in solving the debate. The implication that scientific research has failed at addressing, or has reached an impasse studying, the origins of the pandemic is misleading, however.
Since the start of the pandemic, the amount of publicly available scientific evidence supporting a specific and defined hypothesis for a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2 has only increased. Specifically, most virology experts believe SARS-CoV-2 (or its direct ancestor) jumped from animal to human for the first time via live and infected animals sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.
A July 2022 study published in Science supports the notion that, geographically, the earliest cases were centered around the Huanan Market. The analysis was based on the earliest reported cases in Wuhan. Importantly, this study analyzed cases that were not reported to authorities as having any connection to the market, as well as those that were (a step that aimed to remove possible confirmation bias), and both sets of data still centered around the same market.
That study, on an even more precise scale, demonstrated that animals capable of being infected by SARS-CoV-2 were being sold at this market in late 2019. Further, the study demonstrated that environmental samples from the market taken after it was shut down were "spatially associated with vendors selling live mammals." While no evidence was collected demonstrating the presence of any SARS-CoV-2 infected animal, this spatial relationship is suggestive of an animal source. While it is true the specific animal host has not been found, there were several viable hosts at the market whose booths were associated with positive SARS-CoV-2 samples.
Another study, also published in Science at the same time, identified the presence of two early strains of SARS-CoV-2 in samples from the Huanan Market. Both strains appeared to have originated at Huanan just weeks apart. "As with other coronaviruses," the authors wrote, "SARS-CoV-2 emergence likely resulted from multiple zoonotic events." As explained in a companion piece to that research:
A spillover with successful onward transmission between humans normally involves a series of failed attempts by the virus, allowing it to establish sustained transmissions. For two independent zoonotic spillovers to be successful, sustained contacts and multiple zoonotic transmissions between people and the animals carrying SARS-CoV-2 at the Huanan Market would have been required.
This does not definitively prove the Huanan Market origin theory, but it discredits the notion that science has reached an impasse in its efforts to validate its basic premises.
The Bottom Line
On the other hand, serious scientific inquiry into mechanisms or explanations proposed to support a lab-leak scenario have regularly been undercut by new scientific developments, as Snopes reported in July 2021.
For example, early claims used the existence of a genetic sequence in SARS-CoV-2 that makes it well suited to enter humans, arguing it is unlikely to have formed in nature. Scientists then found plenty of examples of that sequence naturally occurring in other coronaviruses.
Another theory held that the WIV's past sampling of a virus genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2 supported a lab origin because it could have been used as a "backbone" for engineering experiments. Further research has found other viruses more genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2 in its functional parts, and that the evolutionary distance between the sampled virus and SARS-CoV-2 is too great for the former to have produced the later.
There are plenty of unanswered questions about the outbreak's potential origins. These questions that remain challenging for scientists, in part, due to instances of obfuscation by Chinese authorities. Increasingly, however, arguments in favor of a lab leak are made by invoking unproven conclusions by intelligence agencies that do not show their work. It is entirely possible these agencies have evidence that deeply undercuts the Huanan market origin, or that scientifically supports a lab incident.
Until these agencies provide more details to possibly substantiate their findings, however, the publicly available, scientific evidence continues to support a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2.