A State Department fact sheet released by the Trump administration in January said researchers fell ill in the fall of 2019 but did not go so far as to say they had been hospitalized. China has reported to the World Health Organization that the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was registered in Wuhan on December 8, 2019.
Importantly, the intelligence community is still uncertain of what the researchers were really sick of, those briefed said, and continues to have low confidence in its assessments of the precise origins of the virus beyond the fact that ‘it was from China. “At the end of the day, there is still nothing final,” said one of the people who saw the intelligence.
National Intelligence Director Avril Haines told lawmakers at the Global Threat Hearing last month that “the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the Covid-19 virus was initially transmitted” , an assessment that has not changed, said two of the people briefed on intelligence.
The World Health Organization investigated the origins of the pandemic and concluded in a report that the risk of an accident was “extremely low”. The report states that there were “no reports of Covid-19 compatible respiratory illness in the weeks / months leading up to December 2019, and no serological evidence of infection in workers by SARS-CoV-specific serological screening. 2 ”.
Disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who worked on the WHO team, told CNN chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta in February that “there is still no evidence that this is from of a laboratory ”. He noted the researchers had been tested and there was no evidence of Covid antibodies, and said the lab was “very well run”.
“This is not a complete rejection of this assumption,” Daszak said. “It’s a conclusion that this is extremely unlikely and that there is a much more likely hypothesis. “
But the WHO survey was quickly criticized by the US, UK and other governments for its limited access to “complete and original data and samples.”
The organization has also been accused of being too deferential to China throughout the study, which was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists – several of them from public institutions.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has long been investigating the origins of the pandemic, received a confidential briefing on the matter last week, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source declined to say whether the intelligence report mentioning the hospitalized researchers was discussed during the briefing.
Current and former intelligence officials say the idea that the virus was accidentally unleashed from the Wuhan lab is reasonable, although they caution that there is no high confidence rating of this possibility.
In the closing days of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the possibility of the virus leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV. While the information is inconclusive, Pompeo released a fact sheet indicating that the United States had evidence that WIV researchers had been ill in the fall of 2019 with Covid-like symptoms and that the lab, where the coronavirus had been studied in bats, had a history of military research.
The process of declassifying the information in this fact sheet took a long time and some details were erased from the final version that was released, people familiar with the process told CNN.
In contrast, the Biden administration has not declassified any information regarding the origins of Covid-19 and has not indicated its intention to do so.
One of the challenges in developing any certainty is access to the lab itself. China delayed access to international investigators for months after the initial outbreak, virtually guaranteeing that the lab had been thoroughly cleaned before a forensic analysis could be performed, and investigators were also not allowed to view the original data logs which scientists believe would be essential for understanding. the origins of the virus.
A key way to find an answer would be to perform genetic sequencing on the original samples that the Wuhan lab staff were working on. But “the Chinese will never allow that,” said a person familiar with the underlying intelligence.
“My personal belief is that we will never know the answer to this,” said this person. “And the answer will not be discovered by the CIA, because it would suggest that the Chinese are looking for it themselves,” which this person said was not.
“If the answer exists, it will not be found by traditional spies,” the person added.