Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic began either from an accident at a Chinese laboratory or through an infected animal who passed it along to humans.
“Basically [intelligence] components have coalesced around two alternative theories,” Ms. Haines said in her first appearance as DNI before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “These scenarios are [that] it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident,” she said.
The comments contradict the recent conclusions of a joint World Health Organization-Chinese government report that dismissed the lab as “extremely unlikely.”
American scientists as recently as several months ago dismissed the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory as a “conspiracy theory.” Ms. Haines’ comments on the laboratory escape theory are the first official public comments by a senior intelligence official on the likelihood the virus began in a Chinese laboratory.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology and other laboratories in China have been the focus of American intelligence agencies seeking clues to the origin of the deadly disease outbreak that has claimed over 2 million lives worldwide. In January, the State Department released a fact sheet on the institute that said there was substantial circumstantial evidence the virus began there.
The evidence included workers at the lab who were sickened with COVID-like symptoms in the fall of 2019; work on a bat coronavirus that is 96% similar to the virus that causes COVID, known as SARS-CoV-2; and secret work at the laboratory by the People’s Liberation Army, which has conducted animal experiments there.
The testimony contradicts the assertions of the Chinese government that the virus could not have come from one of its laboratories.
Liang Wannian, leader of the Chinese team that conducted the joint WHO-China study said the experts “agreed unanimously” that “it is extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from the lab.” Mr. Liang said that, as a result, future virus origin-tracing missions would no longer focus on the lab escape theory unless new evidence is presented.
Ms. Haines did not provide details for the two theories, but emphasized that the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the virus emerged and spread. Intelligence agencies are continuing to collect information on the virus origin, she said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican vice chairman of the committee, said a laboratory accident is plausible because “to date no such path of zoonotic transmission has been definitely identified.”
“Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have demonstrated from their publications that they were skilled at techniques in which they genetically modified bat coronaviruses in order to create new man-made viruses that were highly capable of creating diseases in human beings,” said Mr. Rubio, Florida Republican.
Several laboratory leaks of viruses have been documented in China, including the original SARS virus, he said.
Mr. Rubio also noted that American diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses high security bio-research labs, warned in 2018 of poor security.
“We can’t conclude that the virus that causes COVID-19 emerged naturally until there’s been a transmission chain that has identified how the virus evolved and transmitted between species,” he said.
CIA Director William Burns, also testifying before the Senate panel Wednesday, said he agreed with Ms. Haines.
“The one thing that’s clear to us and our analysts is that the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent in working with the WHO or providing the kind of original, complete data that would help answer those questions,” Mr. Burns testified.