Hiltzik: goodbye to COVID lab leak theory


For months, supporters of the theory that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese government laboratory hoped that an assessment President Biden commissioned from the country’s intelligence agencies would validate their suspicions.

Their hopes are now dashed. The intelligence report has been declassified and released October 29. It effectively demolishes the theory of laboratory leaks.

The release of the full report follows the release of a brief declassified summary in August, highlighting the intelligence community’s inability to come to a firm conclusion on whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID pandemic, came from natural sources or from a Chinese. laboratory.

The extensive breeding of wild and livestock animals, the trafficking of wild animals and the live animal markets in China … increase the likelihood that initial transmission will occur in this direction.

U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID

The latest version, which is probably the most comprehensive assessment to be released, is written in the same conditional and qualified language.

The report avoids offering a firm conclusion on the two dominant theories. But it does provide details of the agencies’ findings that make it clear that they have looked at the specific claims that have been offered in support of the lab leak theory and found them insufficient.

Intelligence agencies have also noted that while no animal source for the virus has yet been identified, that does not necessarily call into question the theory of a natural source.

In many previous outbreaks, the report says, “the identification of animal sources has taken years and in some cases animal sources have not been identified.”

The report was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, an umbrella agency of 17 government intelligence services, including the CIA, FBI, four Cabinet agencies, and military service intelligence.

Experts who were contacted by the intelligence services preparing the report said they were impressed by the agents’ commitment to scientific analysis. “These people were really well informed, had a doctorate in molecular biology, they had read all the articles in detail”, Tulane virologist Robert Garry told science writer Amy Maxmen of Nature in August.

The laboratory leak theory has been kept on life support for over a year by partisan propagandists, encouraged by amateurs posting on social media and gullible journalists reluctant to give up a story that would be, as the saying goes, “interesting, so true”.

As previously reported, the hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped a Chinese lab to wreak havoc around the world arose from a handful of anti-China ideologues in the department. of State under Trump.

In its initial incarnation, the hypothesis held that the virus was developed by the Beijing government as a biological weapon. His supporters quickly abandoned this claim as too fantastic to win over many believers.

In its most recent form, the theory is that a precursor virus was brought from nature to a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan and evolved there, and this was what crept into the open.

The intelligence assessment rejects the first two versions outright. This suggests that while it is “plausible” that a lab worker unintentionally became the carrier, it is “less likely than an infection occurring through many hunters, farmers, traders and others who have contact. frequent and natural with animals ”.

The report said the agencies considered the bioweapon claim to be “supported by scientifically invalid claims”, adding that its “propagandists are suspected of spreading disinformation.”

He says intelligence agencies have found no “genetic signature in SARS-CoV-2” that would indicate genetic manipulation, such as deliberate manipulation of a virus in the laboratory to make it more dangerous to humans.

They also did not find any evidence of viral strains that “could possibly have served as a backbone” – that is, a biological basis – for a genetically modified version.

The agencies looked at one of the most popular claims by proponents of lab leaks, implicating the furin cleavage site on SARS-CoV-2. It is a feature of the tip of the virus, the structure that allows it to enter healthy cells and transmit infectious material. To be effective, the tip must be cut in half, a process carried out by the enzyme furin.

Proponents of lab leaks have claimed that the furin site is so rare and so well suited for human infection that it was certainly added to the virus in the lab. Just as many academic virologists have noted, the report observes that furin sites have been found in naturally occurring viruses and may be the product of natural evolution.

Intelligence has found support for the so-called zoonotic theory that the pandemic resulted from a natural spillover of the virus from animals to humans in virological history. Many virological outbreaks have occurred this way, the report observes.

“The extensive breeding of wild and livestock animals, trafficking in wildlife and live animal markets in China,” as well as historically lax government surveillance, “increase the likelihood that initial transmission will occur. produce in this direction ”.

According to the services, support for the hypothesis of a laboratory leak comes mainly from reports questioning whether the Wuhan institute carried out its research under adequate biological guarantees. But the services found “no indication that the institute’s research implicated SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus.”

The report says four of its contributing organizations “assess with low confidence” that the virus is likely from natural sources; one notes with “moderate confidence” that the pandemic was “very likely” the result of a laboratory incident, and three could not decide between the two theories. However, the report does not bind specific agencies to these findings.

Intelligence also blames the Chinese government for hampering international investigations into the origins of COVID-19, in part by refusing to share information on WIV research or its own findings on the early course of the disease in Wuhan.

“These actions reflect, in part, the Chinese government’s own uncertainty as to where an investigation might lead,” the US report says, “as well as its frustration that the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on the issue. China”.

The services generally reject what they call “open source” theories about the origin of the pandemic, usually disseminated on social networks. “These theories generally do not provide diagnostic information about the origins of COVID-19 and, in some cases, are not supported by the information we have. “

It’s unclear whether the government’s report will stifle propaganda about a Chinese lab leak, but that may not be the way to bet. Too many people are ideologically attached to this claim, and a scientific debunking of a theory that has had little science to back it up from the start is unlikely to matter.

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