US agency assessment backs Covid lab leak theory raises more questions than answers – and backlash from China

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Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Between in China newsletter, a thrice-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it will affect the world. Register here.

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The US Department of Energy’s assessment of the likely emergence of Covid-19 as a result of a laboratory accident in China has sparked intense debate and brought attention to the question of how the pandemic began.

But the “low confidence” conclusion, made in a recently updated classified report, has raised more questions than answers, as the department has not publicly provided new evidence to support it. given to the application. It has also faced strong pushback from China.

“We urge the US to respect science and facts, stop politicizing this issue, stop finding sources of information, driven by politics,” said a speech from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

The Energy Department’s assessment is part of a broader US effort in which intelligence agencies were asked by President Joe Biden in 2021 to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, which was first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

That overall assessment from the intelligence community was uncertain, and then, as now, a definitive link between the virus and a specific animal or other route has not yet been established – while China continues to continues to stonewall international investigations into the origin of the virus.

Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council assessed with low confidence that the virus jumped from animals to humans through natural exposure, and one assessed with medium confidence that the outbreak was the result of a work-related accident blade. Three other intelligence community elements were unable to converge around a single explanation without additional information, according to an unclassified version of the 2021 report.

Most groups are still undecided or leaning towards the virus having a natural origin – a hypothesis that is also popular with scientists with experience in the field. But the change from the US Department of Energy has now deepened the divide in the intelligence community, especially as the director of the FBI this week reported publicly for the first time that the same kind of confirmation his group made with “moderate confidence”.

Intelligence agencies can make assessments with low, medium or high confidence. A low confidence assessment usually means that the information obtained is not reliable enough, or is too fragmented to make a more accurate diagnosis.

And although the assessment and the new report have drawn the theory back into the spotlight, no group has published evidence or information to support their conclusions. That raises crucial questions about their foundation – and draws attention back to gaps, outstanding unknowns and the need for further research.

fbi director christopher wray fox news 2 28 23

Hear the FBI director’s take on the Covid lab leak theory

Scientists largely believe that the virus emerged from a natural spillover from an infected animal to humans, like many other viruses before, although they widely acknowledge that more research is needed all options. Many have also questioned the lack of data released to substantiate the latest claim.

Epidemiologist Thea Fischer, who in 2021 traveled to Wuhan as part of the World Health Organization (WHO) source investigation and is still part of ongoing WHO tracing efforts, said it was “very important” that assessments any new information regarding the origin of the virus. documented by evidence.

“(These are) strong allegations against a public research laboratory in China and they cannot stand alone without substantial evidence,” said Fischer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“We hope that they will share with the WHO soon so that the evidence can be recognized and evaluated by international health experts just like all other evidence regarding the origin of the pandemic.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the Department of Energy’s new assessment, that the assessment update was made as a result of new information, further review of academic literature and in co – consultation with experts outside the government.

The idea that the virus may have emerged from a laboratory accident became more prominent when attention was paid to coronavirus research being conducted at local facilities, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was further developed amid the failure to find a “smoking gun” to show which animal may have transmitted the virus to humans at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – the location linked to several early-identified issues—among limitations on follow-up research.

Some experts who have been closely involved in examining the existing information, however, are skeptical about the new assessment giving more weight to the theory.

“Since so much of the data we have points to a spill occurring at the Huanan market in late 2019 I doubt there is anything very significant or new information that would change” ​our current understanding,” said David Robertson, a professor in the company. The University of Glasgow’s School of Disease and Immunity, which was involved in recent research with results supporting the natural origin theory.

He noted that market-based locations of early human cases, positive environmental samples, and evidence that live animals susceptible to the virus were being sold are among the evidence supporting the natural-origins theory—though not there are no data to support a laboratory leak.

“This level of evidence always gets lost (in media discussion)… when we actually know a lot about what happened, and maybe more than other outbreaks,” he said.

Security guards stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origin of the Covid-19 coronavirus visit on February 3 , 2021.

Efforts to understand how the pandemic started have been further complicated by China’s lack of transparency – especially as the question of origin has become another point of contention amid tensions the US-China in recent years.

Beijing has banned robust, long-term international field studies and refused to allow laboratory research, which could provide clarity, and be doubtful to share details and data about domestic research to find the cause. However, he insists again that he has been transparent and cooperative with the WHO.

Chinese officials have carefully controlled the only WHO-backed study to get off the ground in 2021, citing disease control measures to confine visiting experts to their hotel rooms for half of their trip and to prevent them from sharing food with their Chinese counterparts – cutting off an opportunity for more informal information sharing.

Citing data protection, Beijing has also refused to allow its own investigative measures, such as testing blood samples from Wuhan or combing through hospital data for “patient zero,” which ‘ could be confirmed by researchers outside the country.

China has strongly denied that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident, and has repeatedly tried to say that it could have reached the country in the first place -out of other places – including the US lab, without offering any evidence to support the claim.

But a top WHO official as recently as last month publicly called for “more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies that need to be conducted in China” – a ‘ include surveys of markets and farms that may be involved.

“These studies need to be done in China and we need the cooperation of our colleagues there to improve our understanding,” WHO technical director for Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said at a press conference.

When asked about the Department of Energy’s assessment by CNN, a WHO representative said that the agency and the original advisory group will “continue to review all available scientific evidence that would help.” We are promoting knowledge about the origin of SARS CoV 2 and we call on China. and the scientific community to carry out necessary studies in that regard.”

“Until we have more evidence all hypotheses are still on the table,” the representative said.

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