US concedes Covid origins may never be known

US concedes Covid origins may never be known

Spy agencies say natural origins and lab leak are both plausible, but China 'hinders' investigation

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease, in February of this year. (Reuters File Photo)
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease, in February of this year. (Reuters File Photo)

WASHINGTON: US intelligence agencies have conceded they may never be able to identify the origins of Covid-19, as they released a new, more detailed version of their review of whether the coronavirus came from animal-to-human transmission or leaked from a lab.

The Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a declassified report released on Friday that a natural origin and a lab leak are both plausible hypotheses for how Sars-COV-2 first infected humans. But it said analysts disagree on which is more likely or whether any definitive assessment can be made at all.

A final conclusion on the virus’s origins is impossible without cooperation from China, it added.

“China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of Covid-19,” according to the report. “Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States.”

The report also dismissed suggestions that the coronavirus originated as a biological weapon, saying proponents of this theory “do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and have been accused of spreading disinformation.

The report is an update of a 90-day review that President Joe Biden’s administration released in August, amid intense political infighting over how much to blame China for the effects of the global pandemic rather than governments that may not have moved quickly enough to protect citizens.

China responded by criticising the report.

“The US moves of relying on its intelligence apparatus instead of scientists to trace the origins of Covid-19 is a complete political farce,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington.

“It will only undermine science-based origins study and hinder the global effort of finding the source of the virus.”

Former Republican president Donald Trump and many of his supporters referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus”.

Some US spy agencies had strongly favoured the explanation that the virus originated in nature. But there has been little corroboration, and over recent months the virus has spread widely and naturally among wild animals.

The ODNI report said four US spy agencies and a multi-agency body have “low confidence” that Covid-19 originated with an infected animal or a related virus.

But one agency said it had “moderate confidence” that the first human Covid-19 infection most likely was the result of a laboratory accident, probably involving experimentation or animal handling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The agencies believe they will not be able to produce a more definitive explanation for the origin of Covid-19 without new information demonstrating that the virus took a specific pathway from animals to humans, or that a Wuhan laboratory was handling the virus or a related virus before Covid-19 surfaced.

The report said US agencies and the global scientific community lacked “clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest Covid-19 cases” but it left the door open to revisiting this inconclusive finding if more evidence surfaces.

China has faced international criticism for failing to cooperate more fully in investigations of the origins of the virus.

The embassy statement also dismissed that criticism.

“We have been supporting science-based efforts on origins tracing, and will continue to stay actively engaged. That said, we firmly oppose attempts to politicise this issue,” it said.

The report sets out key outstanding questions, including information about the earliest cases of Covid-19, Chinese hospital occupancy rates, and information on animals present in a series of Wuhan markets.

China’s resistance to working more without other nations and outside groups to investigate the virus’s origins reflect its “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”, said the report.

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