US Intel Concludes COVID-19 Not Developed as Biological Weapon, Remains Divided on Virus Origins

© REUTERS / AAP Image/Bianca De MarchiA member of the public is seen getting a test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Crossroads Hotel testing centre following a cluster of infections in Sydney, Australia, July 16, 2020
A member of the public is seen getting a test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Crossroads Hotel testing centre following a cluster of infections in Sydney, Australia, July 16, 2020 - Sputnik International, 1920, 29.10.2021
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In a report declassified on Friday, the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said that while the intelligence community (IC) remains divided on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they have assessed it was not developed by China as a biological weapon.
The report seems to be the August report for which ODNI released an unclassified executive summary at the time. A note on its second page says it is in response to US President Joe Biden's May directive to explore the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and that the report "is based on information through August 2021." Further, the two documents name the same number of IC elements reaching the same findings.
However, release of the full report reveals more about how US intelligence analysts arrived at their conclusions.
The document says that the IC found that SARS-CoV-2 "probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019."
Not a Bioweapon, Probably Not Engineered
"We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon," the report says. "Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged."
The IC's many agencies reached a variety of conclusions on several questions related to the novel coronavirus' origin, such as whether it came from an animal or a "laboratory incident."
The report notes that while "most" intel analysts agreed the novel coronavirus wasn't genetically engineered in any way, they couldn't give a higher degree of confidence because "some genetic engineering techniques can make modifications difficult to identify" and because scientists don't have a complete understanding of how naturally occurring coronaviruses operate. However, they noted that all of the unique characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 have been observed in other betacoronaviruses, which have the ability to recombine with other viruses in nature and acquire new characteristics, such as the enhanced transmissibility SARS-CoV-2 has compared to other human coronaviruses.
Likely Jumped From Animals to Humans Naturally
Four IC elements and the National Intelligence Council assessed with "low confidence" that the virus infected humans via natural exposure by making the jump from an infected animal that came in contact with humans while carrying a virus almost identical to SARS-CoV-2.
A chart included in the report lays out various samples of coronaviruses taken from animals across East Asia and describes how closely they resemble SARS-CoV-2. The closest whole genome match found as of August 2021 was in a 2013 sample taken from a bat in China's southern Yunnan Province.
© US National Intelligence CouncilA chart of coronavirus samples taken from different animals in East Asia and their proximity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
A chart of coronavirus samples taken from different animals in East Asia and their proximity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. - Sputnik International, 1920, 29.10.2021
A chart of coronavirus samples taken from different animals in East Asia and their proximity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The report notes that most analysts found natural exposure more plausible because such transfers of other coronaviruses are known to have occurred and because of the many opportunities in China for such a jump to occur. These include hunters, farmers and merchants who sell both live and slaughtered animals at markets across the country, such as the popular Huanan Wet Market in Wuhan that Chinese scientists have long pointed to as the spread site for the first outbreak in late 2019.
Lab Leak Plausible, But No Evidence

One IC element which is left unnamed assessed with "moderate confidence" that "the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)." Debate over the issue, and whether Beijing had engaged in a coverup to hide its culpability for the outbreak, helped drive Biden to order the inquiry.

However, as Sputnik has reported, the theory arose in right-wing anti-China circles in early 2020 and was used by then-US President Donald Trump to deflect blame from his own policies, which contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The report says the scientists who favor or lean toward the lab leak hypothesis "place emphasis on academic articles authored by WIV employees indicating that WIV scientists conducted research on other coronaviruses under what these analysts consider to be inadequate biosafety conditions that could have led to opportunities for a laboratory-associated incident."
However, it also notes that "the IC has no indications that WIV research involved SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus," simply stating that "it is plausible that researchers may have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, possibly resulting in asymptomatic or mild infection."
The report totally dismisses the idea that reported flu-like symptoms among several WIV employees in the autumn of 2019 could ever be demonstrated to have been COVID-19.
Analysts at three IC elements were "unable to coalesce around either explanation" without further evidence. The report goes on to claim that China has not cooperated with the origins investigations, leaving the IC's results uncertain.
How Would Origins Be Confirmed?
The report also gives examples of what would confirm either hypothesis.
Finding a natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 or immediately related to it, or an intermediate host, or evidence that towns near such an animal population had contact with the virus, would confirm zoonotic transmission. However, such conclusions require field work, collaboration, and above all, time - which could also be an enemy, as World Health Organization scientists pursuing the virus' origins have warned.
When it comes to a lab leak, the ODNI report says that "China’s coronavirus research or related information from origins investigations by Beijing or international organizations could provide clear indications of a laboratory-associated incident or at least yield some new insights."
The report also says that China is likely to impede further investigation, claiming they "limited the World Health Organization (WHO) investigation team’s access to sites" and have called such probes politicized. However, the WHO scientists who participated in that January 2021 venture have repeatedly pushed back on those accusations, saying that China cooperated in every way they would be expected to and that the US would never accept such demands of openness if made of their own biolabs.
The WHO report, published in March, two months before Biden ordered the IC to investigate, arrived at essentially the same conclusions as the IC's report: zoonotic transfer is the most likely method of infection, but still more research needs to be done, and a lab leak is the least likely explanation, for which little actual evidence exists.
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