Two leaks from Chinese labs in fall 2019 are the most likely sources of the coronavirus pandemic, a Senate report concluded after an 18-month probe into how COVID-19 reached humans — a thorny question that’s stumped two administrations and fueled rancor between Washington and Beijing.
Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, circulated the report, which says the weight of evidence shows the pandemic was caused by unintentional lab incidents in Wuhan, China, as far back as October 2019. The virus swept through the central Chinese city before emerging as a global concern by January 2020.
“Based on the publicly available evidence, it appears Wuhan is the only location where SARS-CoV-2 spilled over into humans,” the report said, using the formal name for the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. “The low genetic diversity of earliest SARS-CoV-2 samples suggests that [the] COVID-19 pandemic is most likely the result of one or possibly two successful introductions of SARS-CoV-2. Additionally, these estimates indicate that the initial introduction may have occurred on or about November 18 and a second within weeks of the first.”
Dr. Robert Kadlec, who played a key role in Operation Warp Speed to craft a COVID-19 vaccine in the Trump administration, prepared the report.
The 300-page document undercuts Beijing’s official position the outbreak began in December 2019 and says the Chinese Communist Party started to develop a vaccine between the first leak, which went unnoticed outside of China, and the global surge of cases in early 2020.
Chinese military scientist Dr. Zhou Yusen filed a patent for a COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 24, 2020, that would have required weeks of work sequencing the new virus, according to the report.
SEE ALSO: Evidence of virus lab leak is convincing, says ex-intel director
The Marshall report adds momentum to the lab-leak theory, which was initially discredited as disinformation by the political left but has been bolstered by evidence that some workers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized for flulike illness before the virus exploded across the city.
Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and others have also said the virus had unusual properties that hadn’t been found in past coronaviruses, adding to the likelihood it was engineered.
John L. Ratcliffe, who served as director of national intelligence during the first year of the pandemic, said Tuesday the intelligence community should be more aggressive in concluding the coronavirus leaked from a lab.
He told Congress the bank of evidence indicating a spillover from nature is “nearly empty and tenuous.” For instance, no one has been able to confirm a reservoir species or animal through which the virus jumped to humans.
“On the other side of the ledger, it’s overwhelming when you look at China’s actions and the circumstances surrounding what was going on from a biosafety standpoint at Wuhan, the massive number of coronaviruses, the massive numbers of bats carrying coronaviruses that were brought into Wuhan,” Mr. Ratcliffe told the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. “All of that weighs heavily into making assessments at some confidence level that a lab leak was the origin for this pandemic.”
The virus was initially blamed on a wet market in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected before spreading to Italy, South Korea, Iran and the rest of the world. It has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide.
Members of both parties say it’s important to find the source of the virus that causes COVID-19. The search has been hindered by the communist government in Beijing, however, and become a political football in the U.S.
Mr. Ratcliffe said efforts to probe the origins were hampered by news media and social media platforms labeling the lab-leak theory as a conspiracy theory.
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health tended to emphasize the natural spillover theory, though now the retired doctor says he’s open to investigations into the true origins.
People who attended Tuesday’s hearing wore T-shirts reading, “Jail Fauci,” and sat behind the witnesses.
Democrats on the House panel said they are open to the origins inquiry but they don’t want lawmakers to use the occasion to vilify top health officials while ignoring Mr. Trump’s comments in early 2020.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, Florida Democrat, read a series of tweets in which Mr. Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s early handling of the virus and predicted the pathogen would go away.
Mr. Moskowitz said the subcommittee should investigate whether government professionals failed to share information with Mr. Trump “because they didn’t trust the president, because every day he was going out saying this stuff.”
Mr. Ratcliffe said the CIA could make firmer declarations about a lab leak but is reluctant to wade into the issue.
“Such an assessment would have enormous geopolitical implications that the Biden administration seemingly does not want to face head-on,” Mr. Ratcliffe testified.
The White House says President Biden takes finding the origins seriously, pointing to a variety of intelligence reviews that have produced conflicting results.
Mr. Biden recently signed legislation that requires the director of national intelligence to declassify and report to Congress within 90 days on possible ties between the virus and the lab in Wuhan.
“There is no doubt that the administration has far more information than has been released publicly,” David Feith, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the select subcommittee.
Mr. Feith said the intelligence community probably has additional information about six Wuhan researchers who got sick in late 2019 and should disclose it.
Those lab workers remain the “best lead into who or what was patient zero,” he said. “No animal anywhere has been identified as a comparably likely source of the outbreak.”
Another witness said the committee should prepare itself for the fact the U.S. might never get firm answers.
“Absent greater cooperation and transparency from China, which seems highly unlikely, we may never resolve this issue with certainty,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former State Department official and former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production.
China has consistently denied that the virus leaked from a lab, and has stood by early conclusions that the virus transferred from animals to humans.
Yet Mr. Marshall pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s deletion of its online database of virus samples on Sept. 12, 2019, as raising suspicion that Chinese officials were aware of the virus long before they sounded the alarm globally.
The Department of Energy this year concluded with low confidence the coronavirus pandemic resulted from a laboratory leak in China.
Earlier, the FBI concluded with moderate confidence that a lab leak was responsible for the virus’ spread, while intelligence agencies have determined with low confidence the virus emerged from natural channels, according to a review that Mr. Biden ordered in 2021.
Dr. Redfield and other witnesses told the House coronavirus panel in March the virus had a distinct feature, or furin cleavage site, that let the pathogen infect humans easily and was unusual for known coronaviruses, leading them to believe it was likely engineered in a lab.
At the second virus-origin hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Ratcliffe pointed to China’s efforts to destroy lab samples at a Wuhan lab known for risky research, and Beijing’s efforts to coerce witnesses and strong-arm global health investigators as the virus spread around the world.
“My informed assessment, as a person with as much or more access than anyone to our government’s intelligence during the initial year of the virus outbreak and pandemic onset, has been and continues to be that a lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense,” he said.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
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