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Coronavirus ‘lab leak’ theory jumps from mocked to maybe as Biden orders intelligence review

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
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In the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus ripped through U.S. cities on its way to claiming more than 592,000 American lives, a group of senior U.S. national security officials warily eyed a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology was well known in the scientific community for its research on coronaviruses to defend against outbreaks like the SARS epidemic, first identified in China in 2002. But to some of the officials, some of whom worked in the State Department and the White House, the lab’s location in the same city where the coronavirus pandemic began was a troubling coincidence.

Over the course of the pandemic, the officials joined forces, searching for information that might show whether the pandemic had been sparked by reckless or sloppy research in the lab, several of the now-former officials and others aware of their work said in interviews. Their search was partly conducted by a State Department group under Secretary Mike Pompeo that had initially examined China’s compliance with international weapons treaties, and then turned its attention to the lab and evidence of suspected Chinese military activity there.

In the absence of crucial evidence of how the new coronavirus began comes many theories — one is that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. (Video: Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Throughout much of the pandemic, the “lab leak” hypothesis has been ridiculed by scientists as a baseless conspiracy theory, fueled by President Donald Trump in an effort to deflect attention from his administration’s botched pandemic response.

Far from dismissing the lab-leak theory, however, President Biden has told his spies to see if the previous administration’s officials, whose work some of his own skeptical aides have called tendentious and overreaching, may have been right to question the lab and conduct a thorough investigation. The White House recently was told that a large amount of information remained to be examined that could shed light on the question, according to a senior administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Renewed scrutiny of Wuhan lab scrambles the politics of the pandemic

Biden stunned security and health experts on Wednesday when he announced that at least one “element” of the intelligence community “leans more toward” a lab accident as the source of the outbreak, as opposed to a natural transference of the virus from an animal to a human.

“Jaw-dropping,” one of the Trump-era officials involved in the hunt for covid-19’s origins said of Biden’s remarks and the president’s order that the intelligence agencies “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” about the pandemic’s origins. They are to report back in 90 days.

National security officials in the Trump administration had scoured classified intelligence data, scientific papers and even popular magazine articles trying to determine if the lab-leak hypothesis held water. They found no smoking gun, but they felt the information they had gathered demanded closer scrutiny, said several people who were involved in the effort.

The Wuhan lab’s location in the same city as the outbreak was for many the first point of suspicion. But more alarming was the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak.

Chinese officials seemed more interested in blocking investigations than aiding them, the former officials said. They had moved to silence doctors and journalists from reporting on the spread of the virus, which had appeared to first show up in hospital patients in Wuhan in December 2019.

Across the globe, security and health officials began speculating about the source of the virus shortly after it emerged, one former official said, adding that there was enormous frustration that the Chinese government was not more forthcoming with information and did not immediately allow international investigators into the country.

The evidence that the virus may have emanated from the Wuhan lab was circumstantial, the former officials stressed. Their default assumption, one of them added, which was shared by most scientists, was that the pandemic had begun in nature.

Full coverage of the pandemic

But as they read published reports about the kinds of research the lab was conducting, their concerns mounted. Some experiments appeared designed to make viruses more infectious and potentially deadly to humans. Such experiments are often conducted to develop more-effective vaccines and treatments.

The institute was on the radar of some health and national security officials, two former senior officials said, because there were questions about its safety standards and some of its research. These officials expressed frustration that there was not better funding in the intelligence community to gather more information on the lab’s activities.

The U.S. officials felt that experts should consider the possibility that the lab was engaged in risky research that might have sparked an outbreak.

Trump agreed. In April 2020, he first publicly raised the idea that the virus could have leaked from a lab. At the same time, Trump intensified his anti-China rhetoric, referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus.” A rise in anti-Asian hate crimes followed.

Trump offered no evidence to back the lab theory. His trade adviser, Peter Navarro, a longtime China hawk, accused the Chinese government of engineering the virus, offering no credible evidence to support such an audacious claim.

For some of the officials who were privately suspicious of the Wuhan lab, Trump’s and Navarro’s comments turned the lab-leak scenario into a fringe conspiracy theory. It became nearly impossible to generate interest among health experts in a hypothesis that Trump had turned into a political weapon, they said.

But in the fall of 2020, momentum picked up again. The U.S. intelligence community had obtained information that three workers at the Wuhan lab had fallen ill in November 2019 with symptoms similar to covid, which had sent them to the hospital. Their symptoms were also similar to seasonal illnesses, including the flu, but they’d gotten sick the month before the initial cases of the disease were confirmed in Wuhan.

The officials had also come upon information that the Chinese military had been conducting experiments at the lab for years. That also renewed focus on the lab-leak theory.

“The information about the sick workers was really striking,” said David Feith, who at the time was the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

“Simply knowing that there were secret military ties to the lab didn’t necessarily tell you where covid came from. But if you had a cluster of illnesses and they were indeed covid, that could be your Patient Zero,” said Feith, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The new information “began a much larger effort to examine data” about the origins, said David Asher, who at the time was a senior adviser in the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and had been working on investigations into China’s compliance with international treaties and its nuclear weapons program. When that work concluded, Asher, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, became the leader of Pompeo’s task force looking into the origins of covid-19, which the secretary also believed may have emanated from the lab.

In the waning days of the Trump administration, the officials mounted an effort to declassify information, including some about the sick lab workers. On Jan. 15, the State Department released a “fact sheet” — vetted by multiple agencies including in the intelligence community — that said the virus could have spread naturally or come from a lab.

It described three categories of activity that pointed to the latter scenario: the report of sick workers; the lab’s history of research on coronaviruses in bats; and findings that the lab had secretly engaged “in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

The fact sheet, short though it is, stands as the most comprehensive public document to date on what the U.S. government knows about a possible lab leak.

One of the former officials stressed that the evidence has not substantially changed, but that there are many unanswered questions.

“There are a lot of coincidences and circumstantial stuff, and the question is, when are too many coincidences too much?” another former official said. “One side of the ledger is growing, and the other isn’t.”

While more scientists have said the lab-leak theory is worthy of further investigation, many have cautioned against embracing it too enthusiastically.

“The only reason this story has any legs is the media has chosen to dress up old speculation as new information and claim that it’s evidence. It’s not. It’s speculative, and all origin hypotheses remain possible,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan.

Indeed, it took years to unravel the source of the SARS epidemic.

“A 90-day focus on coming to a definitive answer sounds good in ‘D.C. talk’ but is unlikely to come to a definitive answer,” said Chris Meekins, a former Health and Human Services official who is now an analyst at Raymond James, a financial services firm. Unless “we have definitive intelligence information that the U.S. has refused to release thus far to protect sources and methods, I’m not sure what will change over the next 90 days to change their minds.”