“The origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on February 28 on Fox News, noting that he was speaking with “moderate” confidence.
In November 2021, the American federal agency already considered a laboratory leak “plausible,” and called for more investigations, but it did not think it was the most likely theory as it does now. For the moment, the scientists who are interested in the question of the origins of Covid-19 remain expectant.
FBI not very forthcoming about its reasons
This announcement in the media has satisfied proponents of the SARS-CoV-2 lab leak theory, such as molecular biologist Alina Chan, who called it “reasonable” :
“Lab accidents happen at surprising frequency. A lot of people don’t really hear about lab accidents because they are not talked about publicly.”
The FBI did not give reasons for its announcement, leaving many observers confused. “It’s getting more and more challenging to understand the origin of COVID-19 lab-leakage claims as rumors increase – now supported by FBI. Yet, still no new evidence has been shared?” said Thea K. Fischer, a professor of public health in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Twitter.
Many observers have a depressing sense of deja vu. The only argument raised publicly by the FBI is the obstructive attitude shown by China towards investigations into the origin of the virus. “There is no new information, it’s just the recycling of old information,” said Florence Débarre, a researcher in evolutionary biology at the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Paris and director of research at the CNRS. Although the FBI had not yet said so publicly, CNN and the New York Times had leaked as early as the fall of 2021 that the agency prioritized the lab leak theory.
Several experts are surprised by the response to Wray’s interview. “So little news on COVID origins that a non-story becomes a story. Real life Groundhog Day,” despaired American zoologist Peter Daszak on Twittera collaborator at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and an early advocate of the natural origin thesis.
A charged political context
Moreover, the timing of Wray’s statement raises questions, in light of the strained relations between Beijing and Washington. The two superpowers clashed in early February after the discovery of a suspicious Chinese balloon over US territory. The United States has since displayed an aggressive posture. “They are very unhappy with China’s passive support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, and this balloon [was] a gift from the heavens showing that the Chinese are practicing an unfriendly but lawful act,” said international relations researcher Sébastien-Yves Laurent to The world in February. The communication on the origin of the virus could be part of the same strategy: publicizing information from intelligence agencies in order to put China under pressure.
In keeping with this confrontation, Wray was very accusatory towards Beijing, talking about “a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab that killed millions of Americans.” From this perspective, the FBI’s statements can be interpreted as another way of putting China on the spot. “We don’t know if this communication is political or if there are real scientific facts behind these assertions,” said Etienne Decroly, virologist and CNRS research director at the AFMB laboratory, which focuses on the architecture and function of biological macromolecules. “But we need robust facts to check these scenarios.”
Wuhan laboratory is the ideal culprit
Is it a bluff, or is there new information? It’s a mystery. In any case, the FBI is no longer the only US intelligence agency leaning toward the lab leak hypothesis.
The US Department of Energy, which has an internal intelligence agency, has updated its opinion, and also considers the theory of a laboratory leak most likely, albeit with “low confidence.” According to CNN newstheir teams learned that virology work on a “coronavirus variant” was being conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Wuhan “around the time the outbreak began.”
The center has the profile of an ideal culprit. Less well known than the neighboring virology institute, the Wuhan CDC moved in late November 2019 near the now-infamous Huanan market, where the outbreak began. It specializes in expeditions to caves in remote provinces to collect bat virus samples. And several archive videos attest to the low level of protection for its workers.
However, the scientific community remains doubtful. First of all, CNN confusingly referred to research on a variant of coronavirus, a misnomer for a family of viruses. They were probably talking about “a virus which does not correspond completely to SARS-CoV-2 but which resembles it,” said Etienne Decroly, who pointed out that for the moment, only distant cousins of the virus are known.
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Second, it contradicts what is known about the purpose of the Wuhan CDC. “They’ve certainly collected animal samples but I’ve not heard of them doing detailed virological work,” said Edward Holmesa virologist who has regularly worked with Chinese researchers.
Debate is far from settled
The opinion of the FBI and the Department of Energy is still in the minority. The United States has 17 intelligence agencies, seven of which have been investigating the origin of the virus, at the request of President Joe Biden. While two of them are now leaning towards an accidental laboratory leak, five others are opting for a species spillover, the most common scenario for a pandemic. “There is not a consensus right now within the US government,” said US Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby.
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Most agencies recognize that they can only comment with a low level of confidence because of lack of evidence. “If they found evidence that the Wuhan lab had a SARS-CoV-2 progenitor, that would tip the scales toward the lab leak scenario, but it wouldn’t be with a low level but a high level of confidence,” Débarre said. “That would be real information.”
That is the problem with this debate. No conclusive proof has been provided to support one hypothesis or another. The species spillover hypothesis, for example, comes up against the fact that so far it has been impossible to identify the infected animal that could have transmitted the virus to humans. The laboratory leak theory is no more advanced: none of the virus sequences registered by the main laboratories and known to date corresponds to a direct ancestor of SARS-CoV-2. In both cases, China is blocking investigations.