After blowing past its congressionally mandated deadline, the Biden administration released a declassified portion of its report on the origins of COVID-19 on Friday evening revealing that "all" U.S. intelligence agencies now believe the pandemic may have started in a laboratory.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, written as a result of the COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023, laid out what the intelligence community knows regarding China’s now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology, its capabilities, and the actions of its scientists. Though there was much anticipation for the report, it fails to elucidate much new information but states that "all" intel agencies continue to consider both a natural and laboratory-associated origin theory.
The declassified report states that several scientists who worked on animal respiratory viruses at the Wuhan Institute fell sick with symptoms "consistent with but not diagnostic of COVID-19" in the fall of 2019. The report also identified a lack of bio-safety measures being taken by staff prior to the pandemic in handling SARS-like coronaviruses, and therefore increasing their risk for accidental exposure to viruses.
Lawmakers have long derided China for hindering investigations into the origins of COVID-19. The report came on the heels of revelations that Ben Hu, a scientist who worked on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute, was one of the first people to fall sick with what is now believed to be COVID-19. Both Hu and his boss, Shi Zhengli, who ran the bat coronavirus lab at the institute, adamantly denied Hu was sick in late 2019 and that their lab contributed to the COVID outbreak seen in Wuhan in late 2019.
"I swear with my life, [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab," Zhengli said on Chinese social media shortly after the virus emerged in the United States.
SARS-like coronavirus experiments were taking place as early as January 2019 in labs at the Wuhan Institute that were not ranked among their most secure, the report indicated. There was also a shortage of appropriately trained personnel on biocontainment protocols. Months after the coronavirus first emerged, the Wuhan Institute’s high-containment laboratories were found to have aging equipment, a lack of disinfectant, and a lackluster ventilation system. The COVID-19 virus was isolated by scientists at the Wuhan Institute in December 2019, roughly a month before the virus hit the United States.
The integrity of China’s disease control agency has been placed into question by the National Institutes of Health, as was reported earlier this month by the Washington Free Beacon. In 2019, the United States funded research integrity training for scientists at China’s Centers for Disease Control and other Chinese research institutions, citing concerns over "research misconduct," "inadequate ethical review," and "publication fraud."
Though the report states that "almost all" intelligence agencies agreed the virus was not engineered, the report admitted "that some scientists" at the Wuhan Institute did genetically engineer coronaviruses and that the techniques used made it "difficult to detect intentional changes." But the report says that only "most" of the intelligence agencies were of the consensus that the virus was not "laboratory-adapted."
The report also confirms the presence of Chinese military scientists at the Wuhan Institute and indicated that some of the research conducted by Chinese military and civilian scientists there included work with coronaviruses. It chronicles a number of "what if" scenarios that leave the door open to the idea that COVID started in a lab and potentially by the Chinese military for bio-weapon or national defense purposes.
Classified portions of the report were not released publicly.