US agency believes COVID-19 likely escaped from Chinese lab — report

Based on unspecified new intelligence, US Energy Department now thinks lab leak theory most likely explanation for pandemic, but expresses ‘low confidence’ over finding

In this photo taken Thursday, February 23, 2017, researchers work in a lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (Chinatopix/AP)
In this photo taken Thursday, February 23, 2017, researchers work in a lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (Chinatopix/AP)

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic likely arose from a Chinese laboratory leak, the US Department of Energy now reportedly believes, although the White House maintained Sunday that American intelligence remained divided on the issue.

The determination — noted in a classified report by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office, and reported on by The Wall Street Journal — marks a shift by the Energy Department, which had previously said it was undecided on how the virus emerged.

People who read the classified report were quoted in the Journal and The New York Times as saying the department made its judgment with “low confidence,” highlighting how different agencies remain divided over the origins of COVID-19 and the pandemic that swept the globe in early 2020.

The conclusion, reportedly the result of new intelligence, is nevertheless significant because the Energy Department oversees a network of national laboratories, including some that do advanced biological research.

The department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in believing that the pandemic, which has left nearly seven million people dead, was the result of a mishap in a Chinese laboratory.

Four US intelligence agencies believe COVID occurred through natural transmission, while two others remain undecided, the Journal reported.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stressed a “variety of views” on the matter remain.

“Right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question,” he told CNN Sunday.

A patient diagnosed with Covid-19 at the Shaare Zedek hospital Coronavirus ward on January 20, 2022 in Jerusalem (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the lack of consensus, the Journal reported that no US government bodies give any credence to the notion the virus was deliberately leaked as part of a Chinese biological weapons program.

The origins of the pandemic have been a subject of intense debate since the virus’s appearance in late 2019.

The scientific community sees it as crucial to determine the origins of the pandemic in order to better fight or even prevent the next one.

In mid-February, the World Health Organization pledged to do everything possible “until we get the answer” on COVID’s origins, denying a report suggesting the agency had abandoned its investigation.

Two studies published in July 2022 indicated that the most likely explanation for the pandemic’s origins was an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The coronavirus is thought to have spread to more than 679 million people, claiming 6.8 million lives in the process, including 12,272 deaths in Israel.

Ash Obel contributed to this report.

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