SARS-CoV-2: lab-leak hypothesis gains traction

This article has been updated with news of the US House of Representatives passing a Senate-approved bill that will require the Director of National Intelligence to declassify information relating to the origin of Covid-19 and with comments from the director of the World Health Organisation.

The hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan has gained traction over the past week and there’s been vigorous debate about how much weight should be given to new developments.

The Wall Street Journal sparked new interest in the hypothesis when it published an article stating that the US Department of Energy had concluded, with “low confidence”, that SARS-CoV-2 had most likely leaked from a laboratory and, two days later, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Christopher Wray, said the Covid pandemic was probably the result of a lab leak in China.

Then, on March 1, the US Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill that would require the Director of National Intelligence to declassify information relating to the origin of Covid-19.

On March 10 the House of Representatives approved the bill with 419 votes in favour. No lawmakers voted against the bill, which has now gone to President Joe Biden for final approval. Sixteen representatives did not vote.

If enacted the legislation will be named the COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023 and the Director of National Intelligence will be required to declassify the specified information within 90 days of the date of the enactment and submit an unclassified report to Congress. Under the Act, “only such redactions as the director determines necessary to protect sources and methods” would be permitted.

The bill was introduced by Republican Senator Josh Hawley on behalf of himself and Republican Senator Mike Braun. It is cosponsored by Republican senators Mike Lee, Roger Marshall, and Rick Scott.

It specifically refers to declassification of all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the origin of Covid-19, activities performed by the WIV “with or on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army”, coronavirus research or other related activities performed at the WIV prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, and all information about the researchers at the WIV who fell ill in autumn 2019.

On February 26, Wall Street Journal reporters Michael Gordon and Warren Strobel wrote: “The U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak, according to a classified intelligence report …”

They said this was “according to people who have read the classified report”.

The report, the journalists added, was recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress.

Gordon and Strobel said the shift by the Department of Energy, which was previously undecided about how the virus emerged, “was noted in an update to a 2021 document by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office”.

Christopher Wray said in an interview with Brett Baier from Fox News on February 28: “The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”

This was the first public confirmation from an FBI official that the agency had come to this conclusion.

Wray added: “… here you’re talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab …”

He said the Chinese government had been doing its best to try to “thwart and obfuscate” the work that the FBI and the US government and its foreign partners had been doing to investigate the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It had already been suggested that the FBI was the agency cited, but not referred to by name, in a declassified assessment  released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on October 29, 2021.

That report states that “one intelligence community element” assessed with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 was most likely the result of a laboratory-associated incident, “probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.

It adds: “Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way.”

While the report says the intelligence community remains divided on the most likely origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, it adds that all agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: “natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident”.

Gordon and Strobel wrote in their Wall Street Journal article that a senior US intelligence official confirmed that the intelligence community had conducted the assessment update about the lab-leak hypothesis.

“This official added that it was done in light of new intelligence, further study of academic literature and consultation with experts outside government,” they wrote.

In an article published on February 27, Washington Post reporters Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima, and Shane Harris quoted current and former US officials as saying that an analysis by experts from the US national laboratory complex – including members of “a storied team known as Z-Division” – prompted the energy department to change its view earlier this year about the likely cause of the 2019 coronavirus outbreak.

There’s been vigorous debate on social media about how much weight should be given to the energy department’s assessment.

Jamie Metzl, who is a former member of a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory committee on human genome editing, tweeted the following:

Metzl will be a lead witness in a hearing on March 8 of the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic about investigating the origins of Covid-19.

Those who ardently argue that SARS-Cov-2 has a natural origin have been downplaying the latest developments, pointing in particular to the fact that the Department of Energy’s assessment was made with “low confidence”.

The president of the EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, whose organisation has been funded by the US government to conduct research in China in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and is one of the leading exponents of a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2, went out of his way on Twitter to dismiss the Department of Energy’s assessment.

In September 2021 an international group of ten scientists and health experts called on the board of the EcoHealth Alliance to remove Daszak as the organisation’s president.

Daszak “concealed several extreme situations of conflict of interest, withheld critical information, and misled public opinion by expressing falsehoods”, the ten experts said.

Angela Rasmussen, who is another ardent proponent of there being a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2, insisted on Twitter: “‘Either origin is equally likely’ is just not true. The available evidence still shows zoonotic emergence at Huanan market.”

A group of independent investigators and scientists published a report in October 2022 in which they challenge claims that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the Huanan seafood market via zoonosis.

The report’s authors focus in particular on claims made by Michael Worobey, who heads the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in the US and is a leading proponent of the zoonosis theory.

“We find that the arguments by Worobey et al. that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the Huanan seafood market via zoonosis and the hypothesis that at least two separate zoonotic jumps from wild animals occurred at the HSM are not supported by data,” the independent investigators – Daoyu Zhang, Gilles Demaneuf, Adrian Jones, Yuri Deigin, Steven Quay, Steven Massy, and Louis Nemzer – state in their report.

“Consequently, we conclude the most likely scenario is that an infected person brought the virus to the HSM, sparking a superspreader event.”

Zhang et al. state: “We find that the datasets and analyses put forward in support of zoonosis are biased, and lack sufficient verifiable data to support this hypothesis.”

They point to three studies: one by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Huazhong Agricultural University (HZAU), one by Wu et al., and a more extensive study by Gao et al. All the studies concluded that the Huanan seafood market was likely to be a superspreader location and not the source of SARS-CoV-2.

“We concur with this conclusion, as the earliest case locations are removed from wildlife stalls, no wildlife seller contracted Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2 positive environmental specimens are most strongly associated with human gene sequences, and no animals tested positive for the virus,” Zhang et al. state.

The chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Congressman Brad Wenstrup, and Congressman James Comer, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, have written to Christopher Wray, Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, calling on them to “provide information necessary to the Select Subcommittee and Oversight Committee’s investigation into Covid origins”.

The information requested by Wenstrup and Comer includes documents relating to the origins of Covid-19, EcoHealth Alliance, gain-of-function research, enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogen research, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the Wuhan Center[s] for Disease Prevention and Control.

“In addition to the requested documents, the Select Subcommittee may request employees of your Department sit for transcribed interviews,” the congressmen wrote.

Wray, Granholm, and Blinken have been asked to provide the requested documents by March 13, 2023.

In an article published in the New York Times on February 28, headlined “We’ve Been Talking About the Lab-Leak Hypothesis All Wrong”, opinion writer David Wallace-Wells wrote: “…personally, I think that if I were asked what the chances of an accidental outbreak would have to be to justify a loud and public reckoning over lab safety, I would put the number much lower than full proof. In fact, much lower even than ‘preponderance of evidence’ – as low as 5 percent, perhaps, or 1 percent or less.

He added: “Truthfully, I’m not sure that it would need to be any higher than zero, given that early in 2020, many of those scientists who would become the most stalwart critics of the lab-leak theory privately acknowledged that the origins of the pandemic were very much up for debate and that a laboratory leak was a perfectly plausible – perhaps even the most likely – explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan a few months earlier.”

It has become clear that while the former director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, and other scientists publicly supported the zoonosis hypothesis they, in private, expressed serious concerns that SARS-CoV-2 could have had a laboratory origin.

Fauci, along with the former director of the NIH Francis Collins and at least eleven other scientists discussed Covid-19 during a conference call on February 1, 2020.

The call was organised by the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, who was one of the signatories of a statement from 27 health scientists that was published in The Lancet on February 19, 2020, and condemned as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.

During the call, Fauci (pictured left) and Collins were warned that Covid-19 may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and may have been intentionally genetically manipulated.

However, just days after the conference call, four of the call’s participants (Kristian Andersen, Robert Garry, Edward Holmes, and Andrew Rambaut), along with Walter Ian Lipkin, authored a paper entitled ‘The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2’, which was published in Nature Medicine on March 17.

Andersen et al. said it was improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus because the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) binding was not ideal.

They said they did not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was plausible.

Emails exchanged between Fauci and Andersen, who is one of the most well-known proponents of the zoonosis hypothesis, and between Andersen and Daszak, show that, in January/February 2020, Andersen made a dramatic about-turn in his comments about the possible origin of SARS-CoV-2.

On January 31, 2020, Andersen had written about SARS-CoV-2 having “unusual features”, some of which “potentially look engineered”.

Only a few days later, on February 4, Andersen said in an email to Daszak: “The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case.”

Andersen wrote that “fringe theories” should be countered “strongly and in plain language (‘consistent with’ [natural evolution] is a favorite of mine when talking to scientists, but not when talking to the public – especially conspiracy theorists)”.

In one email obtained by BuzzFeed News, Daszak (pictured left) thanks Fauci for “publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for Covid-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.

Fauci continues to insist that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NIAID have never funded gain-of-function research at the WIV.

Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on February 27 that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was a scientific issue and should not be politicised.

She said expert members of the WHO-China mission to Wuhan, which took place from January 14 to February 10, 2021, had concluded that a lab origin was “extremely unlikely” and this conclusion had received “extensive recognition” from the international community.

The WHO-China study has, however, been condemned as a whitewash. In an opinion piece for The Hill, published on August 17, 2021, Jamie Metzl said that, rather than seeing their mission as “courageously probing pandemic origins on behalf of the international community”, the international experts who went to Wuhan “seem to have believed their mission was to compromise with Chinese authorities in exchange for table scraps”.

He said that, in exchange for the Chinese authorities agreeing that a possible lab incident could be mentioned at all, the international experts agreed to label a lab incident origin “extremely unlikely” and to recommend no further investigation of that hypothesis.


The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has urged all countries to reveal what they know about the origins of Covid-19.

“As we have said before, if any country has information about the origins of the pandemic, it is essential for that information to be shared with WHO and the international scientific community – not so as to apportion blame, but to advance our understanding of how this pandemic started, so we can prevent, prepare for and respond to future epidemics and pandemics,” Tedros said on March 3.

He added: “I wish to be very clear that WHO has not abandoned any plans to identify the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, contrary to recent media reports and comments by politicians.”

Tedros noted that the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), which was established in 2021, had, in its report last year, identified key studies that must be done in China and elsewhere “to verify or eliminate the various hypotheses for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

He said the WHO continued to call for China to be transparent in sharing data, and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results.

“To that effect, I have written to, and spoken with, high-level Chinese leaders on multiple occasions, as recently as just a few weeks ago,” Tedros said.

“Until then, all hypotheses on the origins of the virus remain on the table.”

Tedros said the “continued politicisation” of the origins research had turned what should be a purely scientific process into a geopolitical football. This, he said, only made the task of identifying the origins of the pandemic more difficult; and this made the world less safe.

“Understanding the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic remains a scientific imperative, to inform measures to prevent future epidemics and pandemics, and a moral imperative, for the sake of the millions of people and their families who have lost their lives to Covid-19, and those who continue to live with post-Covid-19 condition,” he added.

See this earlier Changing Times article for detailed reporting on the declassified assessment released by the ODNI in October 2021, the mounting pressure for an independent investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2, demands for Anthony Fauci to testify before Congress, email exchanges between Fauci, Daszak, and others, and the deep digging into the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 done by the DRASTIC team of investigators.


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