Top U.S. intelligence officials reiterated Thursday that they could not rule out the possibility that covid-19 leaked out of a Chinese government lab, as opposed to originating from animal-to-human transmission.
During a House committee hearing on global threats, Director of Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns both stated that the controversial theory of the novel coronavirus’s origin was still being investigated by America’s spy agencies. Officials made similar comments during a Senate hearing Wednesday. In so doing, they refused to swear off the increasingly discussed claim that the virus could have actually escaped from a lab—perhaps the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Chinese scientists are accused of having conducted military experiments involving coronaviruses and animals. (Foreign diplomats had also previously expressed concerns about the security of this facility.)
“From our perspective, we just don’t know where, when and how the coronavirus was transmitted initially. We have two plausible theories that we’re working on,” said Haines, when questioned about the issue Thursday. “One of them is that it was a laboratory accident. And the other is that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals.”
The comments also put intel officials at odds with a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), which asserts that the lab leak hypothesis is “extremely unlikely” and that the virus probably originated in livestock farms in southeast Asia. During an exchange Thursday between Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Burns, the CIA director said his agency could not endorse the report’s assessment:
BURNS: “I think at this point, as Director Haines said, this is something that we’re still analyzing, with the benefit of all of the various sources that the intelligence community can bring to bear.”
FITZPATRICK: “But, with regard to WHO’s assessment, they’ve obviously come out and said it’s very unlikely. Is that consistent with the intelligence community’s assessment?”
BURNS: “I think that is not an assessment that we are prepared to make at this point. We are weighing both of the options that Director Haines described.”
When pushed, Haines subsequently reiterated the point: “We do not make the assessment that the WHO report made—that it is “extremely unlikely”... that is not our assessment.”
Odd as it may sound, America’s top spies are not alone. The WHO report was recently criticized by the organization’s own director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said that not enough research had been done on the issue and that “further investigation” was required. More recently, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Trump, Robert Redfield, said in a CNN interview that he believed the “most likely etiology” was “from a laboratory,” but it’s currently unclear what justifies that more assured assessment.
It’s certainly an intriguing turn of events. While a large aggregate of scientists continue to be critical of this theory, more and more health experts and government officials have begun to question the initial claims about covid-19’s origins (those claims have, of course, shifted over time—and there’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community on this topic, in general). Now, what was previously considered a conspiracy theory has increasingly become a legitimate (or at least tolerable) line of inquiry.
The U.S. intelligence community has been one of the most consistently ambivalent voices on this issue. Last April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence made the unusual announcement that it was investigating the “lab leak” claims, though it said it did not believe the virus to be “man-made.” The action was originally blamed on the Trump administration—which was said to be pressuring the intelligence community to endorse the “lab” theory. However, under Biden, America’s top spies seem to be saying the same thing.
While this is all very interesting, it’s perhaps helpful to note that we won’t have a clear picture of how this global disaster started for some time—if ever. After the WHO report’s release, a cadre of scientists recently called for new, politically neutral investigations into the virus’s origins, so the best we can all do at this point is stay tuned.