A recently declassified intelligence community report on the origin of COVID-19 has taken a benign view of biosafety training that took place at a government lab in Wuhan, China, in November 2019, not long before the pandemic began there.
The safety training for staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was an aspect of an interim report by the Republican oversight staff of a Senate committee that last year concluded the pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.” Last October, ProPublica and Vanity Fair delved into the inner workings of the team that produced that interim report and some outside experts’ views of its findings.
The intelligence report was issued in June in response to a law, passed unanimously, that required the director of national intelligence to declassify information regarding the origins of COVID-19. The report confirmed prior news accounts that the intelligence community is divided about the cause of the pandemic, but it did not provide specifics about how different agencies reached their conclusions. While some believe the virus likely first infected a human through a research-related accident, others say it’s more likely that the contagion naturally spilled over from animal to human. The report stated that “all agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible.”
Last year’s report by the Republican oversight staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee pointed to a November 2019 safety training at the WIV, as well as patents and procurements, as evidence of biosafety-related problems at the lab complex around the time the virus emerged in Wuhan. On Nov. 19, 2019, a senior Chinese government safety official arrived at the WIV to discuss a “complex and grave situation currently facing [bio]security work,” the report said. On the same day that the official arrived, the WIV sought to procure a costly air incinerator. The following month, WIV researchers applied for a patent for an improved device to contain hazardous gases inside a biological chamber, like ones used to transport infected animals.
In contrast, the intelligence report said the November 2019 safety training appeared to be run-of-the-mill rather than a response to a biosecurity breach. “We do not know of a specific biosafety incident at the WIV that spurred the pandemic and the WIV’s biosafety training appears routine, rather than an emergency response by China’s leadership,” said the report, which was drafted by the national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction and proliferation and coordinated with the intelligence community. The intelligence community agencies agreed on the underlying facts in the report but drew different conclusions from that information, according to an official familiar with the report.
The intelligence report is brief and does not mention the incinerator or device patent. It said that WIV officials in mid-2019 were “evaluating and implementing biosafety improvements, training, and procurements” in the context of Chinese biosecurity legislation.
Some WIV scientists have genetically engineered coronaviruses, the report said, but the intelligence community has no information “indicating that any WIV genetic engineering work has involved SARS-CoV-2, a close progenitor, or a backbone virus that is closely-related enough to have been the source of the pandemic.”
At the same time, the intelligence report did point to biosafety concerns. “Some WIV researchers probably did not use adequate biosafety precautions at least some of the time prior to the pandemic in handling SARS-like coronaviruses, increasing the risk of accidental exposure to viruses,” the report said.
The intelligence report confirmed previous news reports that several WIV researchers became sick in fall 2019, though it stated this was not proof that the scientists were infected through their work. The intelligence community “continues to assess that this information neither supports nor refutes either hypothesis of the pandemic’s origins because the researchers’ symptoms could have been caused by a number of diseases and some of the symptoms were not consistent with COVID-19,” the report stated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a four-point rating system for biolabs based on the threats posed by the infectious organisms agents allowed there. Biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, labs are the most restrictive and designed to handle the most dangerous pathogens. According to the intelligence report, as of January 2019, WIV researchers were performing experiments with coronaviruses in BSL-2 labs, which have far fewer safeguards, despite knowing of “these virus’ ability to directly infect humans.”
“Separately, the WIV’s plan to conduct analysis of potential epidemic viruses from pangolin samples in fall 2019, suggests the researchers sought to isolate live viruses,” the intelligence report said.
While not revealing the evidence underlying its assessments, the report laid out the divisions within the intelligence community. The National Intelligence Council and “four other IC agencies” assess that the natural spillover of a virus from an infected animal is the most likely cause of the pandemic, according to the intelligence report. The report did not name the other four intelligence agencies.
Two federal intelligence agencies — the Department of Energy and the FBI — have landed on the other side of the bitter debate over the origins of the pandemic, assessing that a laboratory-associated incident is the most likely cause of the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Department of Energy, which had previously been undecided about how the pandemic began, had come to support the lab-leak position with “low confidence” in response to new intelligence; the FBI reached its conclusion with “moderate confidence.” The intelligence report doesn’t mention the confidence levels of any agency.
While the Department of Energy and the FBI agree that the pandemic most likely resulted from a lab incident, the agencies reached the same conclusion for “different reasons,” according to the intelligence report. But the report didn’t say what those reasons were.
Although the March law required the director of national intelligence to declassify “any and all information” relating to potential links between the WIV and the origin of COVID-19, an annex to the report remains classified. According to the report, this was necessary “to protect sources and methods.”
Several Republicans were critical of the intelligence report and demanded more details.