President Joe Biden signed a law in late March that requires the declassification of intelligence on the origins of Covid, but that intelligence has yet to be made public. The push for greater transparency around US findings related to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, comes as scientists and security experts have released conflicting reports based on publicly available information and the White House separately grapples with one of the most damaging intelligence leaks in a decade.
Bloomberg News reviewed a new report of more than 300 pages, prepared at the request of former Republican Senator Richard Burr, which demands additional investigation into Covid’s origins and is likely to fuel interest in currently-classified intelligence. A team of Republican staffers on a health committee Burr previously served on spent 18 months investigating Covid’s origins and released an executive summary of their findings in November. However, their complete, 300-plus page report was never released before Burr left office.
The debate over whether Covid came from an infected animal or leaked from a lab in China has been around for the entirety of the pandemic. This week, a House subcommittee tasked with investigating the origins of Covid-19 — unrelated to Burr’s group — will convene a hearing. Details so far are scant, but legislators plan to discuss the available intelligence.
The new, full report says that much of the information that’s already publicly available supports the theory that Covid could have come from an unintentional lab accident in China during vaccine research efforts. The report suggests that researchers in the People’s Liberation Army were potentially developing SARS-related coronavirus vaccines in 2019 with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, known as the WIV. The report also outlined safety issues in the WIV that the scientific institute was addressing both before and during the pandemic.
“The preponderance of information supports the plausibility of an unintentional research-related incident that likely resulted from failures of biosafety containment during SARS-CoV-2 vaccine-related research,” the authors wrote.
The report notes that the evidence is circumstantial and requires further investigation from the US government. Burr said in a statement that the report “is credible and worthy of inclusion in the international effort to determine how the pandemic started so that steps can be taken to prevent, or mitigate against, future pandemics”.
The Chinese foreign ministry has pushed back against Congressional reports supporting the lab leak theory, describing it as a politically motivated lie.
Covid’s origins have been hotly debated since the virus emerged in China at the end of 2019. The idea that Covid began with a lab leak in Wuhan was contested early on by the international scientific community, but quickly found support from Republican legislators.
Burr, while in office, tasked Robert Kadlec, the former US Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under the Trump administration, with scouring open-source documents and conducting interviews to better understand two conflicting theories: that the pandemic spilled from animals into humans or that it resulted from a lab accident.
The US intelligence community remains split in its findings over how the pandemic started. Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in February that his department believes a “potential lab incident in Wuhan” is the most likely explanation. The Energy Department swung this year from undecided to the FBI’s view, while the Central Intelligence Agency remains undecided. Other agencies say that natural transmission was most likely.
During the House subcommittee’s first hearing on the pandemic last month, both Democrats and Republicans underscored that there isn’t a “smoking gun” to settle the origins debate, and bemoaned the politicisation of the investigative process.
Many scientists still argue the pandemic began naturally when SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. In March, a group of scientists who had previously written papers supporting the market hypothesis re-analysed data collected by Chinese researchers in early 2020 and found evidence that there were animals that were highly susceptible to Covid-19 at the market. They say that strongly supports the spillover theory. The Chinese researchers who conducted the report disagreed.