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US says coronavirus not developed as biological weapon

October 29, 2021

A report released by the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said Chinese officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the outbreak occurred.

WHO officials on a fact-finding trip to Wuhan
The first major outbreak of the virus occurred in Wuhan, China Image: Ng Han Guan/AP/dpa/picture alliance

US intelligence services have once again concluded that the coronavirus was not developed as a biological weapon.

That assesment was published in a report released on Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), assessing the origins of COVID-19.

The assessment also said Chinese officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the outbreak occurred.

Barring some unforeseen discovery, US intelligence will not know if COVID-19 first passed from animals to humans or if it originated as a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the first city in the world where an outbreak was detected.

Four US intelligence agencies concluded with low confidence that it was initially transmitted from an animal to human and a fifth agency has moderate confidence that the first human infection was at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Why release a report with only moderate confidence at best?

Senior officials involved in drafting the report said they wanted to better inform the public about the difficulty in determining the source of the COVID-19 outbreak worldwide.

One official told the Associated Press news agency: "We don't think we're one or two reports away from being able to understand it."

The report is an elaboration of the findings first released back in August following the 90-day review US President Joe Biden had ordered. In ordering the intelligence review, Biden had hoped to shed light on the origins of the global outbreak of COVID-19.

He did so at a time when there was increased support for the theory that the virus leaked from the lab in Wuhan. Former US President Donald Trump and those who support him saw the lab leak theory as offering potential political cover to deflect from his administration's disastrous handling of the pandemic.

The full report states the Wuhan Institute of Virology "previously created chimeras, or combinations, of SARS-like coronaviruses, but this information does not provide insight into whether SARS Cov-2 was genetically engineered by the WIV."

Most analysts do not think the virus was genetically engineered. However, the report notes, "Some genetic engineering techniques may make genetically modified viruses indistinguishable from natural viruses, according to academic journal articles."

Citing a 2017 dissertation by a Wuhan lab student, the report adds, "reverse genetic cloning techniques—which are standard techniques used in advanced molecular laboratories—left no trace of genetic modification of SARS-like coronaviruses."

It adds that revelations of lab researchers were in need of medical treatment for a respiratory illness in November 2019 "is not diagnostic of the pandemic's origins."

China on the defensive

Not only does China present an exceedingly challenging environment in which to collect intelligence, but Beijing has refused to cooperate fully with investigations into the pandemic's origin or grant access to the genetic sequences of coronaviruses kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

China has also rejected suggestions that it mishandled the pandemic since its earliest days in Wuhan.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology remains a subject of speculation and a focal point for those examining the pandemic's origins because the lab researched coronaviruses and there were reports of safety problems at the lab.

COVID-19 has killed at least five million people worldwide.

wd, ar/sms (Reuters, AP)

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