Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… in this installment, we’ll be focusing on 1) the Biden administration’s new efforts to task the Intelligence Community with exploring the possibility of COVID-19 having origins in a Wuhan lab, 2) the slow trickle of information that has led to this shift in attitudes about the virus and its origins, and 3) the conflicting views expressed by various agencies about the scientific community’s current understandings about the situation.
Possible Lab Origins of COVID-19: The Intelligence Community Steps In
This week, the U.S. Intelligence Community has been tasked with probing deeper into an idea that, only a few months ago, would have been dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that the novel coronavirus responsible for a global pandemic that has claimed more than 3 million lives might have origins in a laboratory.
It is one of a pair of what have been deemed “plausible scenarios” for the origins of the pandemic, which include “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” according to an official White House statement issued by President Biden on Wednesday.
“As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has ‘coalesced around two likely scenarios’ but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question,” Biden’s statement reads. “Here is their current position: ‘while two elements in the [Intelligence Community] leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other’.”
“I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” Biden said.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”
The renewed efforts within the Intelligence Community to explore the feasibility of COVID-19’s possible lab origins mark an obvious change with regard to attitudes about the current state of the pandemic, and whether any degree of blame attributed to China is warranted. Still, it remains to be seen what new information – if any – may be forthcoming that could shed light on what specific factors might have instigated this shift.
Although in truth, what is currently unfolding may actually be the result of a slow drip of growing speculations that have emerged in recent weeks, which have questioned whether the idea that a Chinese laboratory could be at the heart of the issue is really so outlandish, after all.
Although the shift in attitude occurring in Washington regarding COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic may appear sudden, it was preceded in March by the admission by Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who said during a CNN interview that he now believed COVID-19 to have originated in a laboratory.
While speaking to Sanjay Gupta, Redfield said that he was “of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory.”
“Normally when a pathogen goes from a [zoonosis] to human it takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient in human-to-human transmission,” Redfield told Gupta. “I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”
Redfield admitted that the views he expressed were “my own feelings. And only opinion.”
“I’m allowed to have opinions now,” Redfield said, in reference to his recent departure from his tenure with the CDC after serving the position during the Trump administration.
Responding to Redfield’s statements, Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci said Redfield was merely expressing an opinion, although he noted that “there are a number of theories.”
“Dr. Redfield was mentioning that he was giving an opinion as to a possibility, but again, there are other alternatives,” Fauci said.
However, more recently a Wall Street Journal report detailed new information about a trio of researchers who were hospitalized in November 2019 with flulike symptoms that appear to have been consistent with COVID-19 infections. The incident, which had been based on a U.S. intelligence report which had not previously been disclosed publicly, indicated that the hospitalizations occurred prior to the earliest cases of COVID-19.
Earlier this week, the White House also weighed in on the matter during press briefings, where officials expressed that renewed efforts toward understanding the pandemic’s origins were justified in light of the new information that has emerged in recent days.
“I think, when it comes to the kind of reports we’ve seen over the last couple of days, you know, our view is that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a press briefing on Tuesday, noting that a factsheet issued in the final days of the Trump administration “did not draw any conclusions regarding the origins of the coronavirus.”
“There still needs to be an international investigation,” Psaki added. “We need Chinese cooperation in order to provide data in order to be transparent about what happened on the ground. We all want to see that outcome. There are a lot of good questions we have the Chinese should answer, and that’s where our primary focus is on.”
COVID-19: Theories of Origin
Obviously, our current understanding of the origins of COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic are not so clear-cut as many have made it out to be. This, despite a plethora of data that health experts have weighed as it has been collected since the earliest days of the pandemic.
What is not in dispute is that COVID-19 was first discovered near the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province. Although initial theories centered on a wet market in the city where many still believe the virus may have emerged, the city is also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab facility that is known to have studied coronavirus strains over the years.
Although renewed attention is being placed on the possible lab origins of the virus, the World Health Organization has maintained that it feels such an origin is unlikely, according to a report that was subsequently challenged my many in the scientific community for showing possible biases in favor of non-lab related origin theories.
Mirroring such statements in the scientific community, Psaki said during Tuesday’s press briefing that the WHO report “lacks crucial data, information, and access,” and that it “represents a partial and incomplete picture.”
Similar sentiments were also expressed Tuesday by White House senior COVID-19 advisor Andy Slavitt, who said the United States needs “to get to the bottom of this, whatever the answer may be,” adding that doing so will require “a completely transparent process from China,” and that the U.S. will “need the [World Health Organization] to assist in that matter and we don’t feel like we have that now.”
We need not entertain the wilder speculations about lab testing gone awry or the engineering of a coronavirus strain, nor do we need to assert that the emergence of COVID-19 had been intentional to recognize that there could be a plausible basis for the lab-origin theory. In likelihood, if this theory were proven, it would entail the accidental escape of the virus through the unintentional infection of one or more individuals. Though far more innocuous than certain other manifestations of the lab theory, it is no less a circumstance that China must be able to account for. The U.S. and other nations are justified in their calls for greater transparency pertaining to information China may possess regarding this possibility.
Meanwhile, the persistent idea that the virus may have originated from a Wuhan lab showcases another element in this evolving debate: that it is clearly now a bipartisan issue, although it perhaps hasn’t always been treated as such.
Although the notion was largely decried in the final months of the last presidential administration, Politico reported on Wednesday that “the ongoing discussions on Capitol Hill represent a remarkable bipartisan agreement that Congress should investigate the origins of a virus that has killed 3.5 million people worldwide, including nearly 600,000 Americans.” Perhaps it is good that lawmakers are finally putting politics (and accusations of conspiracy theorizing) aside and looking at whether there is merit to this theory.
Lastly, the World Health Organization’s insistence as recently as March, as conveyed in its report, that the lab theory remains unlikely should perhaps also see renewed scrutiny. As more information is forthcoming from Intelligence Community assessments of the situation, many members of the scientific establishment who have previously raised concerns about the WHO’s conclusions may likely be joined by a growing body of professionals that appear to be giving serious consideration to this idea. Indeed, there may yet be new evidence that will emerge in support of connections to the Wuhan lab close to where the coronavirus is first known to have emerged.
The White House acknowledged current efforts by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to produce a report on unidentified aerial phenomenon, more commonly known as UFOs, during a press briefing on Tuesday.