While U.S. intelligence agencies are still divided about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, new information has led the US Energy Department to determine that a laboratory leak in China is most likely to blame. However, many experts have raised questions about the adequacy of the investigation, including whether the leak was an accident or a conspiracy.
Who does not recall the year of 2020 being grappled by a deadly pandemic that have swept away more than 6.88 million lives in total? The global spread of the coronavirus has had a terrible impact on human life and caused an unprecedented economic shock. The virus originally emerged on a small scale in November 2019, with the first big cluster arriving in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In the beginning, it was believed that SARS-CoV-2 spread from animals to humans in Wuhan, China’s outdoor “wet markets.” Subsequent theories suggested that it could have been developed in a Chinese laboratory as a biological weapon.
When COVID-19 began to spread beyond China, it started to affect people who had no direct contact with animals and was found to be highly transmissible between humans. The virus has continued to spread over the world, suggesting that it is being unknowingly passed from person to person. As a result, the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020 due to the global spread of the disease.
Where did the virus first emerge from?
While many people may believe that coronavirus was discovered in 2019, the first human coronavirus was actually discovered back in 1965, causing the common cold. Later in the same decade, scientists identified a group of similar human and animal viruses, which they named “crown viruses” due to their crown-like appearance.
After more than three years have passed since Covid-19 was first found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the origin of outbreaks of the virus remains a mystery. But on February 28, 2023, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that Covid-19 “most likely” came from a “Chinese government-controlled lab,” which brought back the controversial claim that the pandemic might have come from a Chinese lab. Interestingly, most recent intelligence reports say the virus has not been genetically altered or designed as a biological weapon. So, some people thought this is a fringe conspiracy theory.
What does FBI say?
According to the F.B.I.’s investigation, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese laboratory that studied coronaviruses, is where the virus was first unintentionally released into the environment (moderate confidence). This marks the first time the FBI has publicly confirmed its classified assessment on the origins of the pandemic virus. The department’s position has shifted from being unsure about how the virus developed to a more definite stance. However, according to US government’s sources, the US Energy Department’s conclusion was reached with “low confidence,” indicating a low degree of assurance. In contrast to more conventional sources of intelligence like spy networks or communications intercepts, the Energy Department relies heavily on the findings of its network of national laboratories, some of which are engaged in biological research.
The nature of the intelligence was not shared by officials. In October 2021, the office of the director of national intelligence announced that four other intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council had concluded, with low confidence, that the virus originated by natural transmission. Despite sharing the material with other agencies, none of them revised their judgments yet.
What the lab-leak theory explains?
Some believe that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory where it was initially discovered. More than a decade ago, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) began researching coronaviruses in bats. The institute is a forty-minute drive from the Huanan wet market, where the initial outbreak of the diseases was discovered.
According to proponents of the notion, the virus might have slipped from a WIV laboratory and moved to the wet market. Most argue that it would have been an unaltered virus obtained in the wild, as opposed to one that was created.
Early on in the epidemic, then-US President Donald Trump advocated for the controversial hypothesis that eventually proved to be false. Some even hypothesized that it may have been manufactured as a biological weapon. At the time, many in the media and politics dismissed ideas as conspiracy theories, but others demanded that the issue be examined further. The concept has persisted despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that it is unsupported by evidence. In 2021, the US media began spreading a classified US intelligence dossier claiming that three researchers at the Wuhan laboratory were hospitalized in November 2019, right before the virus began infecting civilians in the city.
The WHO probe was intended to shed light on the origin of the pandemic, but many specialists felt that it raised more concerns than it answered. In early 2021, a team of scientists delegated by the WHO travelled to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the pandemic. After spending 12 days in the city, which included a visit to the laboratory, the team concluded that the lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely.” However, since then, many experts have raised questions about the adequacy of the investigation and the team’s conclusions.
A major group of scientists criticized the WHO report for dismissing the lab-leak scenario. The scientists wrote in Science Magazine, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” The leak at the laboratory has been called into question by a number of experts, including them. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, has also urged for more research, adding, “All hypotheses remain open and require further study.”
The Chinese government has dismissed claims that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory as a smear campaign. State media have frequently accused the US administration and Western media of promoting rumors regarding the pandemic’s origin.
Following Mr. Wray’s comments, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry accused US intelligence agencies of politicizing the inquiry into the origins of the virus. The Chinese government has also promoted a theory that the coronavirus may have been brought into Wuhan in frozen meat shipments from other parts of China or Southeast Asia. The Chinese government has also cited studies conducted by one of its foremost virologists on bat samples gathered from an abandoned mine in a remote area.
What does the “natural origin” theory say?
According to the “natural origin” theory, the virus spread from animal without any input from researchers in labs. Covid-19, according to proponents of the natural genesis hypothesis, originated in bats and subsequently transferred to humans, presumably via an “intermediary host.” According to the WHO report, it was “likely to very likely” that Covid had reached humans via an intermediary host. While this explanation received widespread support at the outbreak’s beginning, it has since been questioned as researchers have failed to identify a virus in bats or any other animal that fits the genetic make-up of Covid-19.
In response to FBI Director Wray’s comments, however, other experts who have investigated the virus have emphasized that no fresh scientific evidence points to a laboratory leak. Professor David Robertson, head of viral genomes and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, believes that a natural genesis is still the most plausible explanation.
“There’s been an accumulation of evidence (what we know about the viruses’ biology, the close variants circulating in bats and locations of early human cases) that firmly points to a natural origin centered on the Huanan market in Wuhan city,” he said.
An accident, conspiracy or a mystery?
Given the devastating human toll of the pandemic, the majority of experts believe that identifying the virus’s origin is essential to preventing it from occurring again. Any evidence of a leak might also influence the world’s perception of China, which has already been accused of hiding crucial developmental evidence about the pandemic, and worsen the dispute between the United States and China.
Jamie Metzl, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., who has pushed for the lab-leak scenario to be investigated remarked, “From day one China has been engaged in a massive cover-up.” He further added “We should be demanding the full investigation of all origin hypotheses that’s required”.
Anthony Ruggiero, a scholar at the Center for Defense of Democracies and a former biodefense-focused National Security Council staffer during the Trump administration, believes China is still “hiding crucial information” about how the virus emerged. He stated that the lab leak theory must not be disregarded. “The lab leak origin for the Covid-19 pandemic is not, and was not, a conspiracy theory,” he said.
The World Health Organization has asked all countries to tell what they know about where Covid-19 came from. This comes after several US government agencies said the disease was caused by a leak in a Chinese lab, which Beijing strongly denied. It now appears that the initial riddle of the Covid emergence will take some time to unravel.