Allegations that the Covid-19 virus was designed as a bioweapon – a theory aired by some senior Republicans – are based on “scientifically invalid claims” whose proponents “are suspected of spreading disinformation”, the US intelligence agencies have reported.
Most of the 17 US agencies also agree that the virus had not been genetically engineered, while observing it is becoming increasingly difficult to detect signs of such tampering. However, the intelligence community is still divided on the question of whether the virus was spread by animal-to-human transmission or as the result of a lab accident, concluding that that may never be known barring a dramatic breakthrough in Chinese cooperation.
A summary of the findings were first published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in August, but on Friday the ODNI published a fuller version of the study, giving explanations for their agencies’ conclusions.
The theory that the virus, known as Sars-CoV-2, was a bioweapon, which was propagated by Senator Tom Cotton and other hardline Republicans, is rejected at the start of the ODNI report.
“We remain skeptical of allegations that SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon because they are supported by scientifically invalid claims, their proponents do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), or their proponents are suspected of spreading disinformation,” the study said.
On the question of genetic engineering, the report said that most intelligence analysts believe the virus was not human-made in any way, though that assessment is calibrated as low confidence. As of August this year, there have been no sign of genetic signatures that are usually the telltale signs of engineering, it said, but pointed to academic studies that “some genetic engineering techniques may make genetically modified viruses indistinguishable from natural viruses”.
Four intelligence agencies assessed “with low confidence” that the virus spread from animals to human through natural interaction. The assessment was based on the generally agreed finding that the Wuhan Institute for Virology (WIV) appeared to have been taken by surprise by the new virus and had scrambled to identify it.
“They also see the potential that a laboratory worker inadvertently was infected while collecting unknown animal specimens to be less likely than an infection occurring through numerous hunters, farmers, merchants, and others who have frequent, natural contact with animals,” the study said.
One US agency, not named in the study but reported to be the Defence Intelligence Agency, believes “with moderate confidence” that the outbreak was the result of a lab accident at the WIV or elsewhere, the theory promoted by supporters of Donald Trump.
As evidence, it pointed to the fact that the “closest known relatives to Sars-CoV-2 in bats have been identified in Yunnan province, and researchers bringing samples to laboratories provide a plausible link between these habitats and the city”.
The report noted that the WIV “previously created chimeras, or combinations, of Sars-like coronaviruses, but this information does not provide insight into whether Sars-CoV-2 was genetically engineered by the WIV”.
The ODNI report said a more definitive account of the origins of the virus is likely to be impossible without greater Chinese cooperation, but it is not optimistic that will happen, noting China’s efforts so far to block further investigation by the World Health Organization.