By Emily Kopp and Karolina Corin
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified intelligence related to the origins of the worst pandemic in a century Friday evening.
The 10-page intelligence brief far from settles one of the most complex scientific questions of our time, instead demonstrating gaps in our understanding of the COVID-19 tragedy more than three years after the deadly novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan.
Congress unanimously passed a bill in March to compel the intelligence community to release intelligence related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)
That bill explicitly requested intelligence related to three things: the Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers who became sick in the fall of 2019; connections between the Wuhan lab and the People’s Liberation Army; and research at the lab that enhanced coronaviruses.
The brief did not offer any information beyond that mandate, including possible intelligence about other coronavirus labs in the city or the intelligence that persuaded some agencies the virus has a natural origin.
The brief does not appear to include new intelligence, but rather select details about intelligence that the U.S. government has had for more than two years.
The brief appears to fall short of the law which called for the intelligence community to “declassify and make available to the public as much information as possible about the origin of COVID-19.”
The report confirms that the lab grappled with biosafety problems and conducted research on similar viruses. But the intelligence community also takes pains to say that it has no hard evidence of SARS-CoV-2 or a progenitor being present in the lab before December 2019, or of a biosafety breach.
The brief confirmed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is capable of seamlessly engineering new coronaviruses. It also states that the People’s Liberation Army conducted biodefense work there.
Wuhan Institute of Virology Senior Scientist Shi Zhengli has for years been among the world’s experts in SARS related viruses, earning the nickname “the Batwoman” for her propensity to prospect novel bat coronaviruses in remote caves.
She falsely assured the public in 2020 that the military did not conduct work in the lab, calling into question her credibility. Yet the ODNI brief uncritically cites Shi’s assurances that none of the researchers in her lab tested positive for antibodies to the novel coronavirus.
Conspicuously absent: Any mention of the American connections to some of the lab’s coronavirus work at the center of speculation about the lab origin hypothesis, including: work on a close relative of SARS-CoV-2; proposed work on a uniquely infectious feature found in SARS-CoV-2 called a furin cleavage site; and work performed by two of the researchers reported to have fallen ill in the fall of 2019. U.S. agencies including the National Institutes of Health underwrote the research there, but this connection is not mentioned.
ODNI missed the legally-mandated deadline of June 18, 2023, a date that coincided with a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing in an unsuccessful bid to reestablish military-to-military communications amid escalating US-China tensions.
ODNI finally released its report on June 23, 2023.
A lot of information relevant to the intelligence community’s assessment appears to be missing.
The brief does not appear to include the evidence undergirding the Department of Energy’s (DOE) updated assessment in favor of a lab origin. The brief does clarify that the DOE and the FBI assess a lab origin likely for different reasons.
The brief states that the Central Intelligence Agency has not made an assessment.
There are no specifics on how the intelligence community made its assessment as to whether the virus is engineered.
The report states that all agencies assess the virus was not developed as a bioweapon. “Almost all” agencies assess that the virus was not engineered. “Most” agencies assess that the virus was not adapted in a lab (like through serial passaging, a method to make viruses more pathogenic without engineering).
But no confidence level or underlying evidence is provided. Later in the report the brief states that the Wuhan lab was capable of seamless engineering.
An April 2020 statement by ODNI stating that it assesses that the virus is natural and not engineered followed briefings with virologists close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and virologists under congressional investigation for misleading the public, U.S. Right to Know has reported.
The new assessment of the origins comes nearly two years after the intelligence community released an inconclusive summary of its knowledge related to the pandemic’s origins in 2021.
How COVID-19 first began infecting humans is among the most pressing questions of our age.
Globally at least 6.9 million people have died from COVID-19. Trillions of dollars have been lost in economic contraction. Families have lost loved ones. Businesses have folded. Children’s social and academic development has suffered.
Major takeaways from the ODNI report:
Beijing authorities investigated Wuhan Institute of Virology
In early 2020, China’s National Security Commission investigated the Wuhan Institute of Virology and sampled the blood of workers for exposure to the virus, confirming an earlier statement by former China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director George Gao.
This coincided with a notice from the National Health Commission to all labs to incinerate viral samples or transfer them to government-approved labs. The lack of samples from the pandemic’s earliest days has reportedly hindered the intelligence community’s ability to assess the origin.
Sick WIV researchers
Though required by the COVID-19 Origins Act of 2023, ODNI’s report declined to name the sick WIV researchers or describe their symptoms.
In the days leading up to the deadline to declassify intelligence documents, leaks from anonymous government officials alleged that three WIV coronavirus researchers were among the first people to be infected with SARS-CoV-2: Ben Hu, Yu Ping, and Yan Zhu.
They deny getting sick.
“The recent news about so-called ‘patient zero’ in WIV are absolutely rumors and ridiculous,” Hu told Science.
The report alleges that the researchers were not hospitalized for their condition but rather were “mildly ill,” were tested “in annual health exams as part of their duties in a high containment biosafety laboratory,” and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is likely to still have the results of their blood tests.
While they had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they were presumably not severe enough to require hospitalization or a CT scan, which could have detected ground glass opacities, an early signal of COVID-19 before tests existed.
This fact may contribute to why the intelligence community has found that their condition is “not diagnostic” about the origins of the virus.
The report stipulates that it’s not clear whether the researchers were studying live viruses immediately before the pandemic’s start.
But it is clear that the researchers named by journalists were indeed working with live viruses.
A review of their publications shows that these researchers studied coronaviruses with some of the same characteristics as SARS-CoV-2, like the ability to infect human cells via the ACE2 receptor. Some work was done with the aid of U.S. funding, and included ties to EcoHealth Alliance.
One researcher — Hu — was even named in a DARPA proposal that planned to add cleavage sites to the spike proteins of coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2 has such a site, and is the only one of its close relatives to have one.
The presence of this cleavage site immediately caused many virologists to privately question the pandemic’s origins, though many would eventually publicly discount the possibility.
“We will not stop the surveillance carried out for bat coronavirus,” Hu said in a 2017 interview. “There is a need to investigate whether unknown strains of SARS-like coronaviruses that pose a potential threat to public health are also present in other bat caves in Yunnan or in other provinces.”
Both Ben Hu and Yan Zhu were among the researchers who coauthored the paper that first identified SARS-CoV-2 and its close relative, RaTG13, in January 2020, setting off alarm bells among top virologists and National Institutes of Health leaders Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci.
They also studied a related clade of viruses, but the genomes of some of these viruses only became available after the COVID-19 pandemic began, generating questions about the integrity of this data.
They were also co-authors on a paper that isolated WIV1, another virus that served as the backbone for gain-of-function experiments that have generated concerns.
Experiments on WIV1 done in collaboration with U.S. partner EcoHealth Alliance led to the “unexpected” enhancement of the virus’ lethality and pathogenicity. The viral load increased by 10,000 times.
Coronavirus research at the WIV included pangolins
Grant reports and peer-reviewed publications make clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology — with the aid of U.S. funding — conducted research that made coronaviruses more pathogenetic.
The intelligence report confirms that the Wuhan Institute of Virology houses “one of the world’s largest repositories of bat samples.”
The new brief also confirms for the first time that the lab has been working on viruses with epidemic potential found in pangolin samples since 2019.
Coronavirus genomes detected in pangolins appeared to be a close match for SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020, persuading some in the infectious diseases community that the virus had a natural origin, but these genomes were later found to have data integrity issues and were too distant from SARS-CoV-2 to represent a progenitor virus. (That discovery may have a link to one of the reported sick Wuhan Institute of Virology workers.)
The brief also reaffirmed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is equipped to seamlessly generate new viruses with no scars.
“Some of the WIV’s genetic engineering projects on coronaviruses involved techniques that could make it difficult to detect intentional changes,” the report states. “A 2017 dissertation by a WIV student showed that reverse genetic cloning techniques … left no traces of genetic modification of SARS-like coronaviruses.”
Yet the intelligence brief was missing a lot of information that has become public since the novel virus emerged from Wuhan.
Not mentioned: The enormous database of SARS-related viruses hosted by the Wuhan Institute of Virology that became hard to access in September 2019 and was ultimately taken offline.
Another omission from the brief: The leaked grant proposal submitted by the EcoHealth Alliance to the Pentagon that shows that they planned to perform exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments that could lead to the synthesis of SARS-CoV-2. The leaked proposal shows interest in adding cleavage sites to the spike protein, which scientists knew should make viruses more infectious.
Poor biosafety standards at the WIV
The report confirms that “WIV researchers probably did not use adequate biosafety precautions” when handling SARS-like coronaviruses.
Many SARS-like coronaviruses have spike proteins that are capable of infecting humans directly.
While SARS is considered a select agent and is typically handled according to BSL-3 standards, the report states that experiments on SARS-like coronaviruses were performed in BSL-2 laboratories, which could have made accidental infections more likely.
The brief echoed State Department cables stating that the WIV did not have enough staff trained to work in high-containment laboratories, and confirmed that the WIV did not have a transparent process to decide which pathogens should be handled in those labs.
According to the ODNI report, an inspection of the WIV BSL-4 lab noted aging equipment, insufficient disinfectant equipment, and inadequate ventilation systems. Yet because the evaluation was performed in 2020, the report states that it cannot be used to infer the WIV’s biosafety status before the pandemic began.
The WIV also began to make biosafety improvements in mid-2019, which the report attributes to routine procedures.
Wuhan Institute of Virology Senior Scientist Shi Zhengli has stated that her lab did not conduct work with the Chinese military, a claim contradicted by U.S. intelligence.
Military researchers worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratories on virology and vaccines, including on coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics even before the pandemic broke out, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
While the U.S. intelligence community assessed the lab to be civilian, between 2017 and 2019 the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted research on “early disease warning capabilities” for the People’s Liberation Army, according to the new brief.
Yet some details about military ties to the lab that have been made public through public records requests and news reports were not detailed in the brief.
A State Department cable published by U.S. Right to Know last week alleges “shadow labs” conducting classified research apart from the lab’s civilian publications, yet this allegation does not appear in the brief.
One Academy of Military Medical Scientists scientist named Zhou Yusen working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who was instrumental to the unusually rapid development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, was reported as deceased with little fanfare a few months later in a scientific publication, leading to speculation that he could have been killed by the state.
Yusen worked on the spike proteins of coronaviruses for years before the pandemic’s outbreak, according to a Senate report. He does not appear in the brief.
U.S. Right to Know has submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Department of State seeking intelligence related to laboratory workers who fell ill in the fall of 2019. We have also submitted FOIA requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Energy (DOE) for intelligence supporting their assessments that COVID-19 most likely arose from a laboratory-related accident in Wuhan. None of these FOIA requests have so far yielded documents, or been issued an official “determination” as required by the statute. We have filed lawsuits against the FBI and the DOE for violating provisions of the FOIA.
In total, U.S. Right to Know has filed more than 140 state, federal and international freedom of information requests and filed 24 FOI lawsuits about the origins of COVID-19 and high-risk virological research. You can read the documents we have obtained here.
Hana Mensendiek contributed to this story.