A laboratory leak is the only COVID-19 origin theory supported by evidence, a former intelligence official testified on April 18.
“A lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science, and by common sense,” John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence during the latter portion of the Trump administration, told a congressional committee in Washington.
Some scientists and other experts say the bulk of available evidence indicates COVID-19 started at a set of laboratories in China where scientists had been experimenting with bat coronaviruses in the years leading up to the emergence of the illness. The laboratories are located in Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 cases appeared.Other scientists argue either that most evidence supports COVID-19 starting among animals, even though no intermediary between bats and humans has been identified, or that there isn’t enough evidence to say either way.
Ratcliffe said that from what he saw inside the intelligence community, if evidence for the natural origin theory were put side-by-side with evidence for a lab leak, “the lab leak side of the ledger would be long and overwhelming while the ‘spillover’ side would be nearly empty.”
“In fact, were this a trial, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence provided by our intelligence would compel a jury finding of guilt to an accusation that the coronavirus research in the Wuhan labs was responsible for spawning a global pandemic. And likewise, the Chinese Communist Party would be convicted of going to great lengths to cover up the virus’s origins—from destroying medical tests, samples, and data, to intimidating and ‘disappearing’ witnesses and journalists asking questions, to lying and coercing global health authorities, to spreading propaganda that the virus originated in the United States,” Ratcliffe said.
The intelligence community has been divided in its assessment of the origins of COVID-19. In a document declassified in 2021 after Ratcliffe had left the government, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that four elements of the community favored the natural origin theory while one element favored the lab leak theory, and other elements weren’t sure either way. The Department of Energy has since reportedly shifted to favoring the lab leak hypothesis, while the FBI director has said the bureau believes strongly in that theory.
Some elements continue to offer that there is insufficient evidence to make an assessment, including the CIA, Ratcliffe said.
“To put it bluntly, this is unjustifiable—and a reflection not that the agency can’t make an assessment with any confidence, only that it won’t,” he said. The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.
Ratcliffe noted that an ombudsman examining the politicizing of intelligence found that analysts “appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward” because of their disagreement with Trump administration policies, “saying in effect, ‘I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies.’”
David Feith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic that the State Department struggled to get basic information on the origins of the virus.
Early on, the government improperly relied on outside researchers who falsely described the lab leak theory as improbable and a conspiracy theory, Feith said.
“Over time, though, it became harder to ignore the suspicious basic facts of the story,” he said, including how the Chinese Communist Party “suppressed and destroyed evidence from hospitals and genomics companies, market stalls, government labs, and academic articles”
“As we documented these issues to inform our diplomatic engagements with China and others, our attention was drawn increasingly back to the Wuhan labs,” Feith said.
Just before the Trump administration ended, the department finally published a fact sheet that concluded the virus could have emerged naturally or from a laboratory accident.
Feith said that questions could be answered by releasing what spurred the Department of Energy to change its assessment and what the government has found in its analysis of the origins matter. The department hasn’t responded to requests for comment.
Mark Lowenthal, former Vice Chairman for Evaluation for the National Intelligence Council and the minority witness, told the panel that due to key information being withheld by China, “we may never resolve this issue with certainty.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee, said that there’s “mounting evidence suggesting a research- or lab-related incident,” while Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said that there “is no consensus” among intelligence officials and “more research is needed.”
The hearing took place a day after a new Senate report assessed “the preponderance of information” supports the lab leak theory.
The last hearing on the subject saw Dr. Robert Redfield, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say that it was more likely COVID-19 originated in the Chinese laboratories but that the answer would probably come from the intelligence community.
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