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Origins of COVID may never be definitively identified, says US Intelligence Community

coronavirus origin
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A worker in protective overalls and carrying disinfecting equipment walks outside the Wuhan Central Hospital

The US Intelligence Community (IC) assesses that the origins of the novel coronavirus disease may never be definitively identified without additional information, the declassified summary of a report commissioned by US President Joe Biden revealed on Friday. The origin of the deadly virus has been the subject of intense global scrutiny, with speculation swirling that the global pandemic may have been triggered by a leak at the Wuhan virology lab, which China has vocally denied. 

In May, Biden issued a directive to the 17 main US intelligence agencies, which make up the IC, to deliver a report on the origins of COVID-19 within 90 days.

“The IC judges said they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged,” the IC concluded, according to the summary.

According to results released Friday of a review ordered by President Joe Biden, the US intelligence agencies remain divided on the origins of the coronavirus but believe China’s leaders did not know about the virus before the start of the global pandemic.

An unclassified summary suggests four members of the US intelligence community say with low confidence that the virus was initially transmitted from an animal to a human. A fifth intelligence agency believes with moderate confidence that the first human infection was linked to a lab. 

Analysts do not believe the virus was developed as a bioweapon and most agencies believe the virus was not genetically engineered.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement Friday that China “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.” Reaching a conclusion about what caused the virus likely requires China’s cooperation, the office said.

The cause of the coronavirus remains an urgent public health and security concern worldwide. In the US, many conservatives have accused Chinese scientists of developing COVID-19 in a lab and allowing it to leak. 

State Department officials under former President Donald Trump published a fact sheet noting research into coronaviruses conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the Chinese city where the first major known outbreak occurred.

The scientific consensus remains that the virus most likely migrated from animals in what’s known as a zoonotic transmission. So-called “spillover events” occur in nature, and there are at least two coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused human epidemics, SARS1 and MERS.

In a statement, Biden said China had obstructed efforts to investigate the virus “from the beginning.”

“The world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them,” he said. “Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities to the rest of the world.”

China’s foreign ministry attacked the U.S. investigation ahead of the report’s release. Fu Cong, a foreign ministry director-general, said at a briefing for foreign journalists that “scapegoating China cannot whitewash the U.S.”

“If they want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China,” he said.

Biden in May ordered a 90-day review of what the White House said was an initial finding leading to “two likely scenarios”: an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House said then that two agencies in the 18-member intelligence community leaned toward the hypothesis of a transmission in nature and another agency leaned toward a lab leak.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday did not identify which agencies supported either hypothesis. But it noted some of the same hurdles facing the World Health Organization and scientists worldwide: a lack of clinical samples and data from the earliest cases of COVID-19.

In conducting the review, intelligence agencies consulted with allied nations and experts outside of government. An epidemiologist was brought into the National Intelligence Council, a group of senior experts that consults the head of the intelligence community.

Also Read | China accuses US of politicizing COVID-19 origins research

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