Covid-19 likely emerged through ‘small-scale exposure’ no later than November 2019, US officials say

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
Saturday 30 October 2021 00:40
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The virus which causes Covid-19 “probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019,” a new report from the Director of National Intelligence reveals.

The report, which officials declassified on Friday, says that the US Intelligence Community “remains divided” on whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged through “natural exposure to an animal” or a “laboratory-associated incident”.

But intelligence officials were able to agree that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon, and that Chinese government officials “did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged” in Wuhan Province last December.

The report notes that cooperation by Chinese officials “most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of Covid-19,” but China’s government “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States”. 

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

While there is still disagreement among the US Intelligence Community – an umbrella term used to describe the 17 separate agencies that collect and analyse foreign intelligence for defence purposes – on how exactly SARS-CoV-2 jumped two humans, four elements of the IC and the National Intelligence Council have assessed that the initial exposure to a human “was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus”.

That view, the report says, is supported by “China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge, the numerous vectors for natural exposure, and other factors”.

Yet one element of the IC says that first Covid-19 case was “likely ... the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” and says “the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses” is reason to support that hypothesis.

Determining the story behind emergence of the virus which has killed nearly 5 million people worldwide and over 743,000 Americans has been a priority for many Republicans in Congress as they’ve sought to blame China – not former president Donald Trump – for the more than 400,000 deaths that took place on his watch.

Mr Trump, who during 2020 promoted a malaria drug as a treatment for the virus and once suggested that Americans could inject disinfectant as a preventative, has frequently pointed to the virus’ emergence in China as evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic came about as a deliberate plot to harm the US economy and his re-election prospects, perpetrated by Chinese authorities.

Other prominent Republicans have tried to place blame with Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official whose support for masks, vaccinations, and other public health measures made him such a bête noire for Trump supporters that he has had to travel with a security detail since mid-2020.

However, Friday’s report is unlikely to satisfy those looking for a definitive answer to what caused the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, as intelligence officials say they “will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged”.

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