The origin of the virus may remain unclear, U.S. intelligence agencies say

WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence agencies are unlikely to be able to make a firm conclusion about the origin of the new coronavirus without more information from China about the earliest cases or new scientific discoveries about the nature of the virus, according to a newly unveiled intelligence report released Friday. .

President Joe Biden instructed state intelligence agencies in May to conduct a 90-day investigation into the origin of the pandemic. When the key findings of this review were published in August, they did not offer a single answer and instead reaffirmed the agencies ’longstanding stance: the theory that the virus appeared naturally and the theory that it was accidentally created in the lab were both likely.

But Friday’s report reiterated that the evidence supporting both conclusions is thin and that U.S. intelligence agencies know far too little about the origin of the virus. The intelligence community concluded that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon.

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Analysts “estimate that the natural origin and the laboratory-related incident are both plausible hypotheses about how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans,” the report said. “But analysts disagree on what is more likely and whether an estimate can be made at all.”

Four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council believe that the theory of natural causes is more likely. One agency, the FBI, supports the leak theory in the lab. But none of these agencies provided the Director of National Intelligence or the White House with a high-confidence assessment, indicating a doubt that continues to revolve around the issue.

The intelligence community generally found that the virus causing COVID-19 was not intentionally created in the laboratory. But even this conclusion is made only with low confidence. Some genetic engineering techniques make it difficult to identify changes, especially given the existing knowledge gaps about the diversity of naturally occurring coronaviruses.

“Some genetic engineering techniques can make genetically modified viruses indistinguishable from natural viruses, according to academic journal articles,” the report said.

The intelligence report states that the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China has previously produced chimeras or combinations of coronavirus that did not occur in nature. But that record gives little insight into whether the virus that causes COVID-19 has been genetically modified, the report said.

Some Republican lawmakers have embarked on a so-called acquisition of office at the institute, arguing that it supports the theory of laboratory leaks. At a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee this week, a representative, Brad Wenstrup of R-Ohio, a doctor, called for a further review of the institute’s work in creating chimeras.

“In this case, it means experimentally combining the components of two viruses into one to make it more contagious to the general public,” said Wenstrup, who called for more hearings on the origins of the pandemic. “I can’t be sure that COVID-19 originated from a research-related accident or a sampling infection, but I’m 100% sure there was a lot of concealment.”

The National Institutes of Health reported that experiments with the chimera in Wuhan were based on coronaviruses that were not the ancestors of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Biden administration agrees that China has not told everything about the origin of the outbreak. An intelligence report released on Friday calls on China for greater transparency and says Beijing needs to release information on possible intermediate species that the virus could infect before jumping on humans; what he knows about the nature of the first human infections; and more information on the research work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But the report also made it clear that Chinese officials were initially caught uncertain on some cases. Critically, U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that Chinese officials were unaware of the existence of the new coronavirus only after COVID-19 was detected in the population and isolated by the Wuhan Institute.

“Accordingly, if the pandemic originated from a laboratory-related incident, they probably did not know in the first months that such an incident had occurred,” the report said.

The report also suggests that researchers at the Wuhan Institute were unaware of the virus until the outbreak was ongoing, as they quickly switched to work on COVID-19 as the outbreak worsened. The new report relied heavily on the apparent surprise of Chinese officials and researchers at the Wuhan Institute when the pandemic worsened to support a theory of natural causes.

The wide range of animals susceptible to the virus that causes COVID-19 and the different ways in which people in China come into contact with these animals – including trade, farming, sales and rescue – allow for natural transmission.

Although no animal resources have been found, “analysts assessing the pandemic for natural causes note that in many previous zoonotic outbreaks, identification of animal resources took years, and in some cases, animal sources were not identified,” it reported.

On the other hand, analysts who supported the leak theory in the lab also did not find a smoking gun. Instead, they pointed out that previous work with the coronavirus at the Wuhan Institute was done in “inappropriate biosafety conditions that could lead to opportunities for a laboratory-related incident.”

The report says some of the closest known relatives of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been found in bats from Yunnan Province. Researchers who brought the samples to Wuhan could “provide a credible link between these habitats and the city”.

“These analysts find that it is likely that the researchers inadvertently exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, which could lead to asymptomatic or mild infection,” the report said.

However, scientists estimated that the viruses found in Yunnan were different from the ancestors of SARS-CoV-2 40 years ago. The other viruses found in Laos are much more similar in some of their genes, and scientists expect further investigations to reveal even more related coronaviruses in bats.

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