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Lab Leak Most Likely Caused Pandemic, Energy Dept. Says

The conclusion, which was made with “low confidence,” came as America’s intelligence agencies remained divided over the origins of the coronavirus.

WASHINGTON — New intelligence has prompted the Energy Department to conclude that an accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the coronavirus pandemic, though U.S. spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus, American officials said on Sunday.

The conclusion was a change from the department’s earlier position that it was undecided on how the virus emerged.

Some officials briefed on the intelligence said that it was relatively weak and that the Energy Department’s conclusion was made with “low confidence,” suggesting its level of certainty was not high. While the department shared the information with other agencies, none of them changed their conclusions, officials said.

Officials would not disclose what the intelligence was. But many of the Energy Department’s insights come from its network of national laboratories, some of which conduct biological research, rather than more traditional forms of intelligence like spy networks or communications intercepts.

Intelligence officials believe the scrutiny of the pandemic’s beginnings could be important to improving global response to future health crises, though they caution that finding an answer about the source of the virus may be difficult or even impossible given Chinese opposition to further research. Scientists say there is a responsibility to explain how a pandemic that has killed almost seven million people started, and learning more about its origins could help researchers understand what poses the biggest threats of future outbreaks.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, declined to confirm the intelligence. But he said President Biden had ordered that the national labs be brought into the effort to determine the origins of the outbreak so that the government was using “every tool” it had.

“There is a variety of views in the intelligence community,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other. A number of them have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure.”

Mr. Sullivan said if more information was learned, the administration would report it to Congress and the public. “But right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question,” he said.

Leaders of the intelligence community are set to brief Congress on March 8 and 9 as part of annual hearings on global threats. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other senior officials would most likely be asked about the continuing inquiry into the virus’s origins.

Many Democrats have not been persuaded by the lab leak hypothesis, with some saying they believe the natural causes explanation and others saying they are not certain that enough intelligence will emerge to draw a conclusion.

“Evidence has been piling up for over a year in favor of the lab leak hypothesis,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee and leads a new House committee on China. “I am glad some of our agencies are starting to listen to common sense and change their assessment.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Gallagher will hold the new committee’s first hearing, looking at the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses to the United States. Future hearings, Mr. Gallagher said, will look at biosecurity and China’s efforts to influence international organizations like the World Health Organization.

“Where our committee can have a role is teasing out what this communicates about the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party, an organization that was willing to cover up the origins of the pandemic and thereby cost us critical days, months and weeks and millions of lives in the process,” Mr. Gallagher said in an interview on Sunday.

The intelligence agencies have said they do not believe there is any evidence that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was created deliberately as a biological weapon. But they have said that whether it emerged naturally, perhaps from a market in Wuhan, or escaped accidentally from a lab is the subject of legitimate debate.

Anthony Ruggiero, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former National Security Council staff member focusing on biodefense issues during the Trump administration, said he believed China is still “hiding crucial information” about how the virus emerged. He said the lab leak theory should not be dismissed.

“The lab leak origin for the Covid-19 pandemic is not, and was not, a conspiracy theory,” he said.

Category: Science

Source: NYTimes Science

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