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People look at the scenery outside a shopping mall on Oct. 2, 2021 in Wuhan, China, where the first cases of covid-19 were found. (Getty Images)

U.S. intelligence agencies on Friday offered their most detailed explanations to date about the possible origins of the coronavirus that spawned the covid-19 pandemic, including why some analysts think an accident in a lab may be the most plausible source.

The intelligence community’s unclassified assessment didn’t change the summary of its conclusions that were reported last August, which reached few definitive answers about the origins of the virus, a question that has vexed scientists and become a political flash point.

Ultimately, the newly released intelligence assessment shows government analysts puzzling over the same questions and pursuing the same inconclusive leads as scientists who’ve been working for nearly two years without the benefit of secret intelligence.

But the document provides a fuller explanation for why some intelligence analysts ultimately came down in favor of a “lab-leak” hypothesis as the most likely explanation and others determined that the virus probably emerged in nature, when an infected animal passed the pathogen to a human.

The document doesn’t identify where the analysts work and refers to intelligence “elements” rather than agencies by name.

Analysts who had moderate confidence in the lab-leak scenario emphasized that employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the Chinese city where the first covid cases were found in late 2019, had conducted research on other coronaviruses.

These analysts, after examining academic articles, said lab employees worked under what the literature indicated were “inadequate biosafety conditions that could have led to opportunities for a laboratory-associated incident,” the assessment revealed.

Two years before the coronavirus outbreak, U.S. officials had warned in classified diplomatic cables about inadequate safety at the lab. The newly released assessment doesn’t mention the cables, but they would almost certainly have been available to all analysts studying the origins question.

WHO Wuhan report leaves question of coronavirus origins unresolved

The analysts who favored the lab-leak hypothesis also took into account the fact that the initial clusters of covid-19 cases “occurred only in Wuhan” and that the researchers at the lab had taken samples of coronaviruses from animals throughout China and thus “provided a node for the virus to enter the city,” according to the assessment.

These analysts judged that the researchers’ work with infected animals was “inherently risky” and “provided numerous opportunities for them to unwittingly become infected with SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes covid-19.

However, the intelligence community “has no indications that [the lab’s] research involved SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus,” the assessment stated. Despite that lack of physical evidence, the pro-lab-leak analysts noted that “it is plausible that researchers may have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, possibly resulting in asymptomatic or mild infection.”

In that respect, the assessment is notable because it suggests those analysts who believe the virus emanated from a lab have based their conclusions largely on speculation and circumstantial evidence.

One former U.S. official who has recently taken part in discussions with analysts examining classified information — which is not detailed in the public assessment — said nothing they’ve seen points conclusively to a lab-leak or a natural origin.

The assessment also undercut one of the key pieces of information that lab-leak proponents have used to bolster their case.

In November 2020, a State Department team searching for the origins obtained classified intelligence it thought was a breakthrough: One year earlier, three researchers at the Wuhan lab had gone to a hospital with symptoms similar to those associated with covid-19 and other seasonal illnesses, such as the flu.

But the assessment found that reports about sick workers were “not diagnostic of the pandemic’s origins,” adding: “Even if confirmed, hospital admission alone would not be diagnostic of covid-19 infection.”

Those analysts who think the virus is more likely to have emerged in nature also lack any definitive evidence.

Among the factors they considered was “China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge” that the virus existed before researchers at the Wuhan lab isolated it after it was seen in the general population, the assessment said.

The entire intelligence community agreed that Chinese officials probably didn’t have any advance knowledge of the virus, and that accordingly if it did emanate from an incident associated with the lab, officials probably were unaware in the initial months of spread that such a lab-leak had occurred.

U.S. intelligence reporting in early 2020 — before the virus began to tear through U.S. cities — did find that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak after it had begun, The Washington Post previously reported.

China sets back search for covid origins with rejection of WHO investigation proposal

The analysts who favored the natural-transmission hypothesis pointed to precedent: Earlier infectious-disease outbreaks also have zoonotic origins. A wide diversity of animals also are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and animal trafficking, farming, sale and rescue, which all occur in China, could enable animal-to-human transmission, the analysts found.

Although no confirmed animal source for the virus has been found, the analysts noted that “in many previous zoonotic outbreaks, the identification of animal sources has taken years, and in some cases, animal sources have not been identified.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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