Newly declassified intelligence on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic appears to cast doubt on theories that the outbreak that killed millions around the world began at a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.
A report issued late Friday by U.S. intelligence agencies and shared with members of Congress said that despite concerns about biosafety measures at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and despite its history of work with coronaviruses, there is no intelligence that indicates COVID-19 was present in the lab before the outbreak.
"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," according to the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The report further states that the available evidence indicates the lab did not get possession of the COVID-19 virus until late December 2019, "when WIV researchers isolated and identified the virus from samples from patients diagnosed with pneumonia of unknown causes."
The newly declassified intelligence also seems to reject concerns that one of a handful of researchers at the lab who fell ill in November 2019 might have been patient zero.
"This information neither supports nor refutes either hypothesis of the pandemic's origins," the report said. "The researchers' symptoms could have been caused by a number of diseases and some of the symptoms were not consistent with COVID-19."
Yet despite the lack of evidence to support the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic originated at the lab in Wuhan, the U.S. intelligence report makes clear that neither of the leading theories – natural transmission from animals or a lab incident – can be ruled out.
"All [U.S. intelligence] agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection," the report said.
And it said almost all intelligence agencies assess the virus "was not genetically engineered," while noting that while "most agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not laboratory-adapted; some are unable to make a determination."
As for how the pandemic did start, there is less agreement.
The National Intelligence Council and four of the intelligence agencies continue to assess patient zero contracted SARS-CoV-2 as the result of exposure to an infected animal.
The FBI announced this past February that its analysts assess with "moderate confidence" that the pandemic began at the research lab in Wuhan, China.
Intelligence analysts at the Department of Energy have concluded, although with "low confidence," that the virus spread as a result of a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Two other intelligence agencies, including the CIA, have not been able to determine a precise origin for the pandemic.
The new disclosure by the U.S. intelligence community comes three months after President Joe Biden signed legislation ordering the agencies to declassify as much information as possible about the pandemic's origins.
But the newly declassified information, in some ways, reflects few changes from the initial intelligence assessments shared in 2020, when U.S. agencies said that their information supported "the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified," but that more work was needed to determine how the initial transmission of the virus took place.
Since the World Health Organization first declared a global health emergency in January 2020, COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, with some officials suggesting the true death toll could be as high as 20 million.
Chinese health officials have repeatedly defended their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, criticizing any suggestions that they should have shared more information sooner as "offensive and disrespectful."
As recently as March, leading U.S. intelligence officials noted collecting additional information on the COVID-19 virus has been difficult due, in part, to China's refusal to cooperate.
In a statement late Friday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic praised the newly declassified report, saying, "The Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese People's Liberation Army have some serious explaining to do."
"Everyone deserves to know the truth, and the declassification of this report is a promising step toward full transparency," said Republicans Mike Turner and Brad Wenstrup.
"Based on the classified information that we received, we suspected right away that the coronavirus was not a natural phenomenon," they added. "We've been pushing for years to make this information available for all to see."