For three years, the U.S. government has been tied in knots over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, frustrated that China’s hindrance of investigations and unwillingness to look critically at its own research have obscured what intelligence agencies can learn about whether the virus escaped from a lab.
Inquiries during the Trump and Biden administrations have yielded no definitive answers. The Energy Department and the F.B.I. favored the theory that a laboratory leak may have caused the pandemic. Five intelligence bodies considered theories of natural transmission — that the coronavirus developed naturally and was transferred to humans at an animal market or other location — more likely. But the C.I.A., the nation’s leading spy agency, would not make an assessment with even a low level of confidence.
This week, intelligence agencies are expected to release declassified material on what they have learned about Covid’s origins, a subject of intense interest and scrutiny among American lawmakers. But people briefed on the material say there is no smoking gun, no body of evidence that sways the intelligence community as a whole, or top C.I.A. analysts, that a lab leak was the more likely origin of the pandemic than natural transmission, or vice versa.
In fact, senior intelligence officials remain more convinced than ever that the agencies are not going to be able to collect a piece of evidence that solves the puzzle. Local and national authorities in China, U.S. officials say, destroyed some virus samples and used up others in research, all of which might have helped answer the questions over Covid’s origins. But those officials also caution against overstating the importance of the destroyed samples.
American intelligence officials also believe the Chinese government impeded the international community’s efforts to better understand the coronavirus in the early months of the outbreak and refused to gather other information that could have aided the investigation. In essence, there appears to be no secret to steal now.
Chinese officials, according to American intelligence assessments, are either convinced the virus was caused by natural transmission or do not want to investigate further out of fear that it could hurt their international reputation if, for example, evidence emerged that would illustrate sloppy practices or unsafe experiments at one of their labs. In 2021, China also sought to influence an investigation by the World Health Organization, angering the Biden administration.
The declassified material is unlikely to satisfy the debate over Covid’s origins. Some lawmakers and experts have argued that China’s failure to open its labs up to outside investigators is evidence of a cover-up and suggests the coronavirus may have leaked from a lab accidentally.
The coronavirus that causes Covid was first observed in Hubei province in 2019, and initial investigations focused on the possibility that the virus was transmitted to humans at one of the animal markets there, particularly the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. (Newer scientific findings have supported that theory.) But as the pandemic spread in 2020, members of the Trump administration began focusing on the possibility that the virus escaped from one of the two labs that study viruses in Wuhan, the city in central China where the virus first emerged.
A Government Accountability Office report released last week highlighted the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s failure to provide information to the National Institutes of Health on research it had done on potentially dangerous pathogens. The report found that U.S. government funding had gone to the Wuhan lab, one of the labs that has been a focus of investigations into Covid’s origin. The lab had exceeded the safety threshold in some research, but the N.I.H. or its contractor had not properly monitored the work, the report said.
The report raised questions about the effectiveness of government restrictions designed to prevent scientists receiving U.S. funding from creating more deadly viruses, but it did not provide evidence that the Wuhan lab had made a more dangerous coronavirus, much less the pathogen that caused Covid.
Recent news reports have unearthed new information about researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who became sick in 2019. The news reports suggested that one of them could be patient zero. The information about the sick workers was first discovered at the end of the Trump administration. By August 2022, however, intelligence analysts had dismissed the evidence, saying it was not relevant. Intelligence officials determined that the sick workers could not tell them anything about whether a lab leak or natural transmission was more likely. Intelligence agencies view the information about the cases neutrally, arguing that they do not buttress the case for the lab leak or for natural transmission, according to officials briefed on the intelligence.
U.S. officials also caution that their intelligence collection is imperfect. Before the pandemic, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention were not a priority collection target for American intelligence agencies. And China quickly locked down sources of information that might have been able to provide evidence.
Further complicating the picture is intelligence collected by U.S. agencies that illustrated a high level of tension between local officials in Wuhan and leaders in Beijing, particularly at the start of the pandemic. Local officials, trying to save their jobs and cover up the seriousness of the pandemic, obscured what was happening in Wuhan. Chinese officials have not acknowledged such tensions.
To protect their methods of gathering information, U.S. officials declined to discuss how they had collected intelligence on Chinese officials or their discussions about the Covid pandemic.
American officials say it is still possible that some new evidence comes to light, something like a trove of data a scientist has hidden away or a new source of information to help provide more insight. But as more time passes, that becomes less likely, especially as memories fade or sources move out of reach.
As an intelligence matter, officials said, the trail has run cold.
Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. @julianbarnes • Facebook
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