The U.S. Energy Department reportedly became the second government agency Sunday to conclude the coronavirus probably leaked from a lab rather than jumping from animals to humans naturally, a “low confidence” conclusion that lends more attention to a belief that was once considered—and by some, still is—to be little more than a fringe theory.
cluster of cases of a mysterious respiratory disease were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the first traces of a virus that would kill millions of people worldwide in the worst pandemic in decades.A
one of the first high-profile politicians to tout the theory that the coronavirus originated in a lab setting, either as an artificially created virus or as a natural virus that accidentally leaked out, an idea that broke with the predominant theory that the virus circulated in bats and was naturally transferred from animals to humans through a food market in Wuhan (Cotton acknowledged at the time he didn’t have evidence the virus emerged from a lab).Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) becomes
an open letter condemning the “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”; this letter is later scrutinized, as one of its signers, Peter Daszak, is the head of EcoHealth Alliance, a group that has does work in China at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which some saw as a conflict of interest.A group of scientists sign
refutes Trump’s claim, citing a study that found the virus’ mutations are “consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”Then-President Donald Trump, who frequently refers to Covid-19 as the “China virus,” says “a lot of people are looking” into the possibility of a lab leak, and says the theory “seems to make sense”; Dr. Anthony Fauci, then the government’s leading infectious disease expert,
fact sheet stating the U.S. government believes that some researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—a biolab whose research into bat viruses had drawn scrutiny—became sick in fall 2019, shortly before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic; in May, it is reported that three researchers were hospitalized before the first coronavirus case was reported.In the final days of Trump’s presidency, the State Department publishes a
A team from the World Health Organization investigating the source of Covid-19 says it is unable to discern its origins, but calls the possibility that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan “extremely unlikely”—though many observers questioned whether China gave the team enough access to reach a firm conclusion, and the new Biden Administration expressed “deep concerns” about the report.
Nature reveals a close relative of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—was found in bats in Thailand, lending credibility to the theory that the virus evolved naturally and was not manipulated in a laboratory.A paper in the journal
open letter in the journal Science, saying “we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” and arguing the lab leak possibility hasn’t been thoroughly investigated.A group of scientists publish an
orders an intelligence review of the two predominant Covid-19 origin theories.President Joe Biden
Fauci, who up until this point has been steadfast that Covid-19 evolved through natural means, says “the most likely origin is from an animal species to a human but I keep an absolutely open mind that there may be other origins,” adding, “it could have been a lab leak.”
risky “gain-of-function” research in China that modified viruses to study their evolutionary growth paths, suggesting (with no direct evidence) the coronavirus might have been created in a lab rather than merely leaking from one; Fauci denied the research method was used, and the National Institutes of Health later said viruses studied with federal funding in China were “genetically far distant” from SARS-CoV-2.Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) call each other liars during a Senate hearing, part of a months-long debate over whether federal agencies funded
The intelligence review ordered by Biden does not determine whether Covid-19 emerged from a lab or through natural origins.
assessment states that “two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident,” but intelligence agencies remain divided on which hypothesis is correct; it also finds China most likely did not develop the virus as a biological weapon, and most analysts have determined with “low confidence” the virus wasn’t genetically engineered.A declassified U.S. Intelligence Community
A pair of peer-reviewed studies published in the journal Science determine the Huanan Market in Wuhan—not a lab—was the most likely origin of the virus, citing the virus’ likely genetic mutations and the presence of infected people and virus-positive samples near the market.
release a report saying the “most likely” origin of the coronavirus was a “research-related incident” at a lab in China, pointing to biosafety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a lack of “critical corroborating evidence of a natural zoonotic spillover,” and while “the absence of evidence is not itself evidence,” it is “highly problematic” a natural origin hasn’t been proven three years into the pandemic.Senate Republicans
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times report the Department of Energy, which oversees networks of U.S. labs, has concluded with “low confidence” that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory.
2. That’s how many intelligence agencies, the Department of Energy and the FBI, have determined Covid-19 was leaked from a lab, according to the Journal. The FBI came to its conclusion in 2021 with “moderate confidence.” Four agencies have reportedly determined with “low confidence” the virus was transmitted naturally through animals. The CIA and one other unnamed agency remain undecided between the two origin theories.
While there are many labs in Wuhan, where Covid-19 cases were first reported, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has remained at the center of the lab leak theory, as one of its labs conducts coronavirus research on live bats. The theory’s adherents usually believe the coronavirus either evolved in nature and was being studied at a lab in Wuhan before it accidentally leaked out, or was artificially created by researchers before it escaped—though the latter theory has been heavily contested by many experts. The focus of the natural spread theory is the Huanan Market in Wuhan, where animals including bats and raccoons were sold, as many of the first reported cases were associated with this marketplace. Politics have heavily influenced the way these origin theories were initially received and investigated, as the lab leak possibility was touted by conservatives during the early days of the pandemic, often without any direct evidence. Many brushed Trump’s claims of a lab leak off as misinformation, as he was frequently spreading false claims about the virus, including that researchers should study bleach injection as a form of fighting it. The lab leak theory has also been conflated with the idea that the virus was released on purpose as a biological weapon, an evidence-free conspiracy theory. The debate has been influenced by tense U.S.-China relations, with some of the lab leak theory’s earliest backers—including Cotton—criticizing China for a lack of transparency.
While China became known as the source of Covid-19, whether naturally occurring or in a lab, Asian Americans experienced an increase in racism and race-targeted attacks that is generally linked to the pandemic. In 2022, the group Stop AAPI Hate reported there were nearly 11,500 reported hate incidents in the U.S. between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2022.
Here’s What Dr. Fauci Has Said About Covid’s Origins And The Lab Leak Theory (Forbes)
A Timeline Of The COVID-19 Wuhan Lab Origin Theory (Forbes)
Covid Likely Originated From Lab Leak, Energy Department Reportedly Finds—But Biden Aide Says There’s No ‘Definitive Answer’ (Forbes)
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis (New York Magazine)
EXPLAINER: The US investigation into COVID-19 origins (Associated Press)
Meet the scientist at the center of the covid lab leak controversy (MIT Technology Review)
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