The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. spy agencies rule out possibility the coronavirus was created as a bioweapon, say origin will stay unknown without China’s help

Workers in protective suits disinfect the compound of a primary school in Wuhan, China, on Aug. 25 before schools reopen. (China Daily via Reuters)

The U.S. intelligence community has ruled out the possibility that the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 4 million people globally was developed as a bioweapon by China, but the agencies failed to reach consensus on the virus origin, according to key takeaways from a classified report delivered to President Biden this week.

The report, the result of a 90-day sprint ordered by Biden, also found that the agencies are unlikely to reach a conclusion about the virus’s origins without cooperation from the Chinese government, which is unlikely, according to a summary of the takeaways released Friday.

“Beijing . . . continues to hinder the global investigation, resist information sharing and blame other countries, including the United States” for the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed nearly 635,000 American lives, said the summary prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“These actions reflect in part China’s government’s own uncertainty about where an investigation could lead, as well as its frustration that the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China,” the ODNI said.

The two main hypotheses — that the virus jumped from animals to humans in a natural process, or that it escaped from a research laboratory in China — remain on the table, ODNI said. Both theories are plausible, the agencies concluded.

The Washington Post previously reported that the intelligence community had not reached definitive agreement on the virus’s origin.

The report reflects how the government’s top spies are at a loss to solve the mystery, and their inability to do so raises the prospect that it will remain unsolved for years to come.

Without virus samples from China, said Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist, “it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to get any closer to knowing how this thing originally emerged.”

Biden on Friday vowed to press on, as elusive as determining the origin seems.

“The world deserves answers,” the president said in a statement, “and I will not rest until we get them.”

Biden receives inconclusive report on covid origins

Former Trump administration officials credited the Biden administration with undertaking the effort but were disappointed with the limited conclusions.

“If the report reveals anything, it is more evidence of how China’s non-transparency and non-cooperation have prevented the world from understanding the origin of the deadliest pandemic in modern history, and how to prevent the next one,” said David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

“Now, the administration and the Congress need to decide whether China will face sanctions for this,” said Feith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Or will international science and technology exchange with China just continue unimpeded?”

The intelligence community plans to review the report with an eye to releasing a declassified version at some future date, Assistant Director of National Intelligence Timothy Barrett said Friday.

The agencies that analyzed the issue determined the virus “probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019, with the first known cluster of covid-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019,” the summary said, recapping what has largely been publicly reported.

The city in central China is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has conducted extensive research into coronaviruses.

The intelligence agencies concluded that the Chinese government “did not have foreknowledge” of the virus before the initial outbreak, the summary said. Most agencies that examined the evidence assessed with “low confidence” that the virus “probably was not genetically engineered.”

The report reflects that intelligence agencies do not always agree with each other, and sometimes reach conclusions with different degrees of confidence. It is the job of the National Intelligence Council, the body that coordinates intelligence from the 19 spy agencies, to marshall a community view.

Four agencies and the intelligence council assessed with “low confidence” that the virus was “most likely caused by natural exposure” to an infected animal or a close progenitor virus. They gave weight to the Chinese government’s lack of advance knowledge about the virus, the “numerous vectors of natural exposure” and other factors, the summary said.

One agency, on the other hand, assessed with “moderate confidence” that the first human infection “most likely was the result of a lab-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” the summary said. That agency gave weight to “the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses,” the summary said.

The lab leak theory consists of different scenarios. For example, the virus could have been brought to the lab unknowingly as part of a collection of virus samples and then infected a lab worker, who then spread it in Wuhan. Or it could have involved an experiment that was covered up. Chinese officials have steadfastly denied they had the coronavirus in their laboratories ahead of the outbreak.

The agencies, which include the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, are unlikely to achieve clarity unless new information emerges about the “specific pathway” for initial contact with an animal or to determine that a Wuhan lab was handling the virus, it said.

The origins debate largely has been stalled for months, and the report given to Biden on Tuesday apparently does not contain information that would dramatically change anyone’s position.

Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.