New York: More than two years after the pandemic, the origins of COVID-19 remain unclear. It has been the subject of a political and scientific debate with scientists and politicians globally contending that the source of the coronavirus was exposure to an infected animal or an event at a laboratory.
New declassified intelligence report by the US government on the origins of COVID-19 has not confirmed whether the pandemic, which has infected over 768 million people and claimed more than 6.9 million deaths globally, was the result of a lab leak or the virus jumped into people from an infected animal.
"All agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection," said the long-anticipated declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, released Friday evening.
In May 2021, President Joe Biden instructed US intelligence agencies to examine the virus's origins, based partly on their own classified sources of information, including about the Chinese government's response to the outbreak.
In the previous such report, the intelligence did not reach consensus, though most of them tended to favour the natural origins scenario. The new report adds little to those earlier assessments.
In the new report the National Intelligence Council and four other unnamed agencies said that the initial human infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, most likely was caused by natural exposure to an infected animal that carried the virus or a close progenitor, a virus that probably would be more than 99 per cent similar to SARSCoV-2.
On the contrary, the Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation assess that a laboratory-associated incident was the most likely cause of the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2, although for different reasons.
The Central Intelligence Agency and another unnamed agency remain unable to determine the precise origin of the Covid pandemic, as both hypotheses rely on significant assumptions or face challenges with conflicting reporting.
Importantly, almost all intelligence agencies "assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically engineered", the report said.
"Most agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not laboratory-adapted; some are unable to make a determination. All intelligence community agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon," it added.
Meanwhile, the report said the intelligence agencies found that "some of the research conducted by the People's Liberation Army (PLA; China's military) and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) included work with several viruses, including coronaviruses, but no known viruses that could plausibly be a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2".
While acknowledging the research conducted at the lab, including on animal sampling and genetic analysis, "We continue to have no indication that the WIV's pre-pandemic research holdings included SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor, nor any direct evidence that a specific research-related incident occurred involving WIV personnel before the pandemic that could have caused the Covid pandemic," the report said.