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Results Are In on Biden's COVID Origin Report

Intel assessment is inconclusive on whether virus came from lab or jumped from animal to human
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 25, 2021 7:29 AM CDT
Results Are In on Biden's COVID Origin Report
This undated electron microscope image shows the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.   (NIAID-RML via AP)

(Newser) – In June, Director of National Intelligence chief Avril Haines warned that sussing out the "smoking gun" on the origins of the novel coronavirus might not ever happen. Now, a report commissioned by President Biden three months ago from the intelligence community to figure out that mystery has brought her words to bear—the results are inconclusive, US officials tell the Washington Post. Earlier assessments by the intel agencies had narrowed down to the two likeliest scenarios: that the virus had jumped from an animal to a human, the theory most favored; or that it had leaked from a Chinese lab. Further details:

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  • Theory No. 1: Viruses have long taken the leap from animals to humans, and early cases of this virus came out of a Chinese seafood market where traces of SARS-CoV-2 were found. A June report in Nature also found animals sold in Wuhan wet markets pre-pandemic "suffered poor welfare and hygiene conditions" and were "capable of hosting a wide range of infectious zoonotic diseases." That report "[changed] the calculus tremendously," a Tulane University microbiologist tells the Post.
  • Theory No. 2: The possibility that the virus emerged from a lab gained ground in June after another article in the journal Nature laid out reasons why it was still viable. Among such evidence: still-murky reports of three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers showing signs of flu-like illness in November 2019, before any cases of COVID-19 were reported in China. Former President Trump and his allies also pushed this theory.
  • A distant third theory: Most experts in viral genome evolution agree the virus wasn't engineered as a bioweapon, as its naturally occurring components mimic those seen in other coronaviruses.

  • Early signs of a stalemate: Haines told Yahoo one month into the Biden-commissioned probe that "dozens of analysts and intelligence officials" were involved, approaching the question from every possible position, and that she could already see it would be tough to make the call. "I really see why it is that [analysts] perceive these two theories as being in contest with each other and why it's very challenging for them to assess one over the other," she said at the time. In fact, some scientists say this is the type of inquiry that could take years of research.
  • Not the right experts? One of the officials who spoke to the Post also noted that members of the intelligence community might not be the best ones to look into such a science-heavy question. "You're going to have to increase your ranks with people with significant scientific capacity relative to pathogens," Biden himself said in July during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
  • What's next: Officials tell the Post that parts of the report will likely be declassified in coming days, possibly for public release. But scientists say this should be just the beginning. "We should not even be thinking about closing the book or backing off, but rather ratcheting up the effort," a Stanford University microbiologist tells the paper.
(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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