Importantly, the intelligence community still does not know what the researchers were actually sick with, said the people briefed, and continues to have low confidence in its assessments of the virus’ precise origins beyond the fact that it came from China. “At the end of the day, there is still nothing definitive,” said one of the people who has seen the intelligence.
The current intelligence reinforces the belief that the virus most likely originated naturally, from animal-human contact, the sources said. But that does not preclude the possibility that the virus was the result of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where coronavirus research was being conducted on bats.
“It’s not a complete throwing out of that hypothesis,” Daszak said. “It’s a conclusion that it’s extremely unlikely and that there is a much more likely hypothesis out there.”
But the WHO probe was swiftly criticized by the US, UK, and other governments over its limited access to “complete, original data and samples.”
The organization was also accused of being overly deferential to China throughout the course of the study, which was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists — several of them from state-run institutions.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has long been investigating the origins of the pandemic, received a classified briefing on the matter last week, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source declined to say whether the intelligence report mentioning the hospitalized researchers was discussed during the briefing.
Current and former intelligence officials say that the idea that the virus was accidentally unleashed from the lab at Wuhan is reasonable, although they caution that there is no high-confidence assessment of that possibility.
In the final days of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaned into the possibility that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV. Despite the intelligence being inconclusive, Pompeo put out a fact sheet that said the US had evidence researchers at the WIV had been sick in the fall of 2019 with Covid-like symptoms and that the lab, where coronavirus had been studied in bats, had a history of military research.
The process behind declassifying the intelligence in that fact sheet took a long time, and certain details were scrubbed from the final version that was released, sources familiar with the process told CNN.
In contrast, the Biden administration has not declassified any intelligence surrounding the origins of Covid-19 and has not indicated that it plans to do so.
One of the challenges in developing any certainty is access to the lab itself. China delayed access to international investigators for months after the initial outbreak, virtually guaranteeing that the lab had been deep-cleaned before any forensic analysis could be done, and investigators were also not allowed to view original data logs that scientists say would be critical to understanding the virus’ origins.
One critical avenue to finding an answer would be to run genetic sequencing on the original samples that staff at the Wuhan lab were working on. But “the Chinese are never going to allow that,” said one person familiar with the underlying intelligence.
“My own personal belief is we’re never going to know the answer to this,” this person said. “And the answer is not going to be found out by the CIA, because that would suggest the Chinese are looking for it themselves,” which this person said they were not.
“If the answer exists it’s not going to be found by traditional spycraft,” this person added.