The Department of Energy’s low-confidence assessment that Covid-19 most likely originated from a laboratory leak in China is still a minority view within the intelligence community, three sources familiar with the intelligence community’s findings tell CNN.
While the FBI has also assessed – with moderate confidence – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 likely leaked from a lab, the majority of the intelligence community still believes that Covid either emerged naturally in the wild, or that there is still too little evidence to make a judgment one way or another.
Three sources told CNN that the Department of Energy’s shift was based in part on information about research being conducted at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control in Wuhan, China, which was studying a coronavirus variant around the time of the outbreak.
CNN has previously reported that the Chinese CDC lab in Wuhan was researching coronaviruses and bats, but it is unclear how closely related the variants being studied there were to SARS-CoV-2, the strain of the virus which spread around the world in 2020.
Other intelligence agencies, however, have disagreed that this data point was sufficient evidence to assess that the virus may have leaked from the lab, according to the sources.
A 2021 report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed that the National Intelligence Council, along with four other unidentified agencies, assessed with low confidence that the initial Covid-19 infection “was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus.”
Three other intelligence community agencies were “unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely.” One of those undecided agencies, as CNN has reported, is the CIA, which remains on the fence on the issue.
The only significant shift from the 2021 report was the Department of Energy analysis, sources said. The intelligence community provided an update to that report to lawmakers in recent weeks, which included the new DoE assessment.
Two Democratic sources familiar with the intelligence debate downplayed the significance of the new Department of Energy assessment because the other, more significant agencies in the intelligence community, which also reviewed the information the Energy Department used for its assessment, have not shifted their position.
But a GOP source familiar with the Energy assessment said it is notable the agency was willing to come out in support of the lab theory. They also reiterated that China is still withholding critical information they could share that would provide further clarity.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed back when asked about the reported assessment during a regular briefing on Monday. “The parties concerned should stop stirring up arguments about laboratory leaks, stop smearing China and stop politicizing the issue of the virus origin,” spokesperson Mao Ning said.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday accused China of “blocking from the beginning international investigators and members of the global health community from accessing information that they need to understand the origins of Covid-19.”
A June 2021 US intelligence community memo that was issued as part of the investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which was previously obtained by CNN, directed agencies to expand their collection on the “breadth of Chinese biological research and related activities.”
The memo specifically instructed the intelligence community to focus on “data or samples from sites where sampling relevant to coronavirus research took place,” including the Huanan Seafood wholesale market which is located just blocks away from the Wuhan CDC.
The 2021 ODNI report noted that a definitive assessment of the pandemic’s origins will likely remain elusive until China agrees to cooperate with global investigations.
“China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19,” the report said. “Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States.”
Two top GOP lawmakers on Monday sent letters demanding a broad range of information from the Biden administration about the origins of Covid-19.
House Oversight Chairman James Comer of Kentucky and Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, head of the Coronavirus Select Subcommittee, sent requests Monday to the State Department, Department of Energy and FBI for documents and testimony related to their ongoing probe into the pandemic and how it began, according to letters obtained by CNN.
A Republican aide said Wenstrup’s subcommittee plans to hold its first hearing on March 8.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby reiterated at the White House on Monday that the US government does not have a consensus on the origins of the virus.
“What the president wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts. And that’s what we’re doing and we’re just not there yet,” Kirby told reporters. “And when we’re there yet, and if we have something that is ready to be briefed to the American people and the Congress – than we’re going to do that.”
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