Just one day after the U.S. surpassed China to become the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency updated its assessment of the origin of the novel coronavirus to reflect that it may have been accidentally released from an infectious diseases lab, Newsweek has learned.
The report, dated March 27 and corroborated by two U.S. officials, reveals that U.S. intelligence revised its January assessment in which it "judged that the outbreak probably occurred naturally" to now include the possibility that the new coronavirus emerged "accidentally" due to "unsafe laboratory practices" in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pathogen was first observed late last year. The classified report, titled "China: Origins of COVID-19 Outbreak Remain Unknown," ruled out that the disease was genetically engineered or released intentionally as a biological weapon.
"We have no credible evidence to indicate SARS-CoV-2 was released intentionally or was created as a biological weapon," the report found. "It is very unlikely that researchers or the Chinese government would intentionally release such a dangerous virus, especially within China, without possessing a known and effective vaccine." Every scientist interviewed by Newsweek for this story also rejected categorically the notion that the virus was intentionally released.
Covid-19 has infected nearly 3 million people across the globe, initially ravaging China before hitting hardest in the West and leaving the United States as the most deeply-afflicted country, with more than 55,000 deaths as of April 27. Its origin remains the subject of not only scientific debate, but a politically charged dispute in the international community.
Citing academic literature, the DIA document states that a "definitive answer may never be known" as to how the disease truly first emerged. A U.S. intelligence spokesperson told Newsweek, "the Intelligence Community has not collectively agreed on any one theory."
Tracing the origin of a new virus is not easy. It took researchers at the Wuhan Institute more than a decade to trace the 2002-2003 SARS virus to remote bat caves in Yunnan province. It's not surprising, then, that in early February, China's Academy for Military Medical Sciences "concluded that it was impossible for them to scientifically determine whether the Covid-19 outbreak was caused naturally or accidentally from a laboratory incident," according to the DIA document.
The DIA report, however, cites U.S. government and Chinese researchers that found "about 33 percent of the original 41 identified cases did not have direct exposure" to the market. That, along with what's known of the laboratory's work in past few years, raised reasonable suspicion that the pandemic may have been caused by a lab error, not the wet market.
After reporting that Covid-19 occurred naturally, U.S. intelligence modified its stance to say it might have leaked from a lab.