A Feb. 26 report by The Wall Street Journal sent major ripples through the policy world and social media.
The article said the Energy Department had concluded in a five-page report that the COVID-19 pandemic “most likely arose from a laboratory leak” in a “classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress.”
It did not name specific sources for the information or share any documents, instead crediting people who had read the classified document. They said the agency had made the finding with “low confidence.”
News of the Energy Department’s conclusion offered backing for those who believe that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, rather than spreading from a “wet market” in the same Chinese city. (A wet market sells meat, fish and produce.)
Almost since the pandemic began, the two competing theories have battled for supremacy, as experts sifted through the evidence. All sides agree this evidence has been limited by a lack of transparency by the Chinese government.
The debate, and the Energy Department’s conclusion, became an active topic on cable news and social media, particularly on the right, after the Journal published its article.
With a screen chyron that said, “Biden admin: Corona leaked from the China lab,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson began a Feb. 27 segment about the Journal’s report by saying that “the Biden administration has finally concluded that, yes, COVID was not naturally occurring. It didn’t emerge organically from a pangolin, whatever that is, at the wet market, whatever that is. No, the virus came from a Chinese military lab, where it was created.”
Later in his monologue, Carlson specified that this was the determination of the Energy Department.
We found numerous other social media posts that made the more sweeping claim that the lab theory is now the prevailing view of the entire government. One falsely claimed the “Biden administration now acknowledges culpability for the COVID-19 pandemic,” even though the pandemic began a year before Biden took office.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, responded to the Journal story, tweeting, “So the government caught up to what Real America knew all along.”
Such statements overstate the Energy Department report’s significance, because not all government intelligence agencies agree with that conclusion. Despite numerous investigational efforts, the government has not collectively reached a singular position that supports one theory over the other.
“There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started,” John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said in a White House briefing Feb. 27. “There is just not an intelligence community consensus.”
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Here’s a look at what U.S. government agencies have and haven’t said about COVID-19′s origin.
What was previously known — and unknown — about the virus’s source
The last major intelligence community assessment on this topic came in an October 2021 report by the National Intelligence Council, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the presidentially appointed head of the intelligence community. That report offered a divided verdict on the origin of COVID-19.
Every intelligence agency that participated in the report agreed that either the lab leak or the natural exposure theories were plausible, and that no credible evidence supported a third theory — that it had been developed as a biological weapon or was genetically engineered.
The report was unspecific about what agencies believed what theory. It said four units within the intelligence community concluded “with low confidence” that the first COVID-19 infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an infected animal, the report said.
One unit did conclude “with moderate confidence” that the first human infection with the virus was most likely the result of a “laboratory-associated incident.” Three others were unable to agree on the likeliest cause without more information. The report said their efforts were hampered because China “continues to hinder the global investigation.”
Two congressional reports authored by Republican committee staff echoed that frustration with China’s lack of transparency. Both concluded that it was impossible to say with certainty what happened.
In September 2020, a report by the Republican staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that, given the lack of Chinese cooperation, “ultimately, no conclusion has been reached as to what role, if any, the (Wuhan Institute of Virology) played in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
And in October 2022, a report by the Republican oversight staff of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions concluded that the virus’s spread was “most likely the result of a research-related incident.” However, the report said it didn’t expect to provide the final word, writing, “This conclusion is not intended to be dispositive. The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the (People’s Republic of China) with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion.” (SARS-CoV-2 is the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.)
Meanwhile, a May 2020 classified report that has not been made public found it was “plausible” that the virus escaped from a lab but did not go as far as to say it’s the likeliest explanation, CNN reported in 2021.
New developments from February 2023
The Energy Department’s shift has not been recorded in a public document; what has become public is based on anonymously sourced discussions between officials who have seen the classified material and reporters, including the Journal’s.
The department’s assessment has been characterized as an update to the 2021 intelligence community assessment, based on new intelligence.
“Though initially undecided about COVID-19′s origins, Energy officials concluded as part of a new government-wide intelligence assessment that a lab accident was most likely the triggering event for the world’s worst pandemic in a century,” The Washington Post reported.
However, the Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence,” The Post and others have reported.
The Journal cited a “senior U.S. intelligence official,” who said the update “was done in light of new intelligence, further study of academic literature and consultation with experts outside government.”
Following The Journal’s revelation, one more agency has come out publicly to support the lab leak theory: the FBI.
On Feb. 28, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Fox News host Bret Baier that “the FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”
Wray said that the FBI’s work continues and that he couldn’t share classified details. He added that the Chinese government “has been doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate” the investigations.
What the Energy Department and FBI conclusions mean
That the Energy Department and the FBI now, to one degree or another, believe the lab leak theory means that this theory has important institutional support. But it’s important not to oversell what this means, experts cautioned.
One reason is the department’s classification of its conclusion as being “low confidence.”
A paper by Jeffrey A. Friedman and Richard Zeckhauser of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government described “a ‘high confidence’ assessment as one that is based on ‘high quality’ information; a ‘moderate confidence’ assessment ‘generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence’; and a ‘low confidence’ assessment relies on evidence that is ‘too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytic inferences.’”
Karl Kaltenthaler, director of the University of Akron’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies, told PolitiFact that the department’s characterization of its conclusion as a “low confidence” assessment “most likely means that the quality, number, and corroboration of the sources are such that the agency does not have much confidence that the information that went into the assessment is accurate.”
The second reason for caution is that the Energy Department’s change of heart does not mean that the government has collectively acknowledged it’s the likeliest scenario.
Some intelligence agencies have maintained their disparate judgments about the pandemic’s origin, or at least not said publicly that they’ve changed their mind. The Washington Post reported that only the Energy Department changed its assessment from the 2021 report. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and NBC News have reported that the CIA is one of the undecided intelligence agencies, citing unnamed sources.
Administration officials have been careful to say there was no governmentwide agreement on this question.
Beyond the National Security Council’s Feb. 27 statement noting the lack of consensus, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Feb. 26 that there are “a variety of views in the intelligence community. 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.”
Outside experts agreed that the Energy Department and the FBI backing the lab leak theory is noteworthy, but that it’s neither proof of the theory nor a sign that there is now governmentwide consensus.
“This is not the U.S. government or the U.S. intelligence community’s final assessment,” Kaltenthaler said. So far, he said, “there is no joint assessment that has come from the intelligence community on this issue.”
There is wide agreement that the biggest obstacle to finding consensus is China’s lack of cooperation, experts said.
“If you want to blame somebody in terms of how this all unfolded, it’s very clear that China hid this, did not move quickly enough, and now is blocking investigation,” Beth Sanner, the former deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration during the Trump administration, told CNN on Feb. 27.
Gregory F. Treverton, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for International Studies, told PolitiFact that he doesn’t expect to see a governmentwide consensus anytime soon.
“I’m sure the intelligence community will continue to work on this issue, but my sense is that there won’t be a definitive answer,” he said.