U.S. intelligence failures related to the COVID-19 global pandemic include suppression of dissenting views on the origin of the virus, a recent report by House Republicans on the intelligence oversight panel concluded.
“We believe the [intelligence community] failed to properly support policymakers with timely products and analysis. Moreover, evidence shows that [its] failures continued in the pandemic’s aftermath,” the minority’s report stated in the annex to a study that linked China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to the pandemic’s outbreak.
“Specifically, Republican members are aware of allegations that [U.S. intelligence agencies] suppressed dissenting views related to the origins of the pandemic and that the community relied upon ‘outside’ experts with concerning yet undisclosed entanglements,” the report said.
The report did not specify the outside experts who may have conflicts. However, the report singled out the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based virus research group and its president, Peter Daszak, one of the most outspoken critics of the theory that the virus came not from an animal host but was leaked accidentally or deliberately by researchers at the Wuhan lab.
EcoHealth Alliance received more than $100 million in U.S. government funding for coronavirus surveillance and research. Mr. Daszak also organized a letter signed by a group of scientists in the early days of the pandemic in 2020 in the British medical journal The Lancet criticizing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy.
The panel Republicans also said there are concerns “the U.S. government directly or indirectly engaged in dangerous scientific research with China despite knowing of the Chinese military’s participation.”
“The committee must determine what role, if any, the [intelligence agencies] had in monitoring or evaluating U.S. policy risks related to these efforts,” the report said.
The 20-page report made public last week is based on classified information obtained by the committee as part of its role in providing oversight of the 17 U.S. spy agencies. The report concluded that “significant circumstantial evidence” shows the virus most likely escaped from the WIV that has been engaged in research on viruses similar to COVID-19.
“Why is this important? This is about bioweapons. This is about biowarfare. This is very concerning,” California Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Fox News in releasing the report last week.
The report said that a contrary theory that the virus jumped from a bat to a host animal and then to humans, or was transmitted directly from bats to humans, lacks evidence.
The evidence the virus came from a laboratory includes China’s record of deadly virus leaks from laboratories, including an escape of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, that is similar to COVID-19.
The virus escape theory also includes warnings from American diplomats in 2017 that WIV was engaged in dangerous research on viruses without using proper safety procedures.
Chinese military research at WIV also raises questions about whether the pandemic may be linked to what the GOP report said is “a documented biological weapons program” in China.
It had been known that several researchers at WIV were sickened with coronavirus-like symptoms in the fall of 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that three workers from WIV required hospitalization, and that Chinese officials had not disclosed the details of the sicknesses.
Doubts from Fauci
China’s government has denied the virus leaked from the WIV or any other laboratory. Beijing instead asserted the virus was introduced into China by the U.S. military, or arrived on frozen food packaging, something most virus experts say is unlikely.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Biden, initially criticized the lab leak theory. But in comments earlier this month just getting attention, Dr. Fauci said that now he is “not convinced” the virus originated naturally and called for continued investigation of the origin.
“I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” Dr. Fauci said at a May 11 event organized by PolitiFact. “Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out.”
Another factor fueling suspicions that the virus began in a laboratory has been Beijing’s multiple efforts to cover up the true circumstances of the outbreak that began in December 2019 in Wuhan, the report said.
Mr. Nunes invoked an intelligence community directive that analysis should be designed to prevent “bias, politicization or other issues” in reporting.
The report suggests intelligence agencies relied heavily on outside experts who misled the intelligence community into believing the virus most likely began as a naturally occurring disease outbreak.
For example, an April 30, 2020, statement by the Office of Director of National Intelligence said U.S. intelligence analysts “also concur with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.” A year later in April 2021, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress the laboratory leak theory and animal transmission theory are the U.S. government’s two main hypotheses.
Until the testimony, many scientists and their supporters in the mainstream news media dismissed the virus lab leak as a conspiracy theory promoted by right-wing advocates.
A DNI spokeswoman did not return an email seeking comment.
Trump administration White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said last summer that intelligence agencies failed to appreciate the seriousness of the virus early in the outbreak. Intelligence analysts in January 2020 were “still saying this is something like the flu and not as serious as SARS,” he said in an interview.
The GOP report noted there is scant evidence for the animal-origin theory and more for the lab-escape scenario.
“Chinese researchers have failed to find the original bat population or species from which [COVID-19] might have jumped, despite an intensive search and testing more than 80,000 animals,” the report said.
The Republican report stated that a recent scientific paper “indicates that the virus has several characteristics that, when taken together, are not easily explained by a natural zoonotic origin hypothesis.”
Mr. Nunes has asked Ms. Haines, the DNI, to provide all intelligence on the coronavirus, including reports produced by contractors and outside experts, as well as all intelligence behind the January 2021 State Department fact sheet — the first public report revealing evidence linking the pandemic to the WIV, including the institute’s ties to the Chinese military.
Republicans are also seeking any intelligence assessments of the dangers of so-called “gain of function” research being carried out in Chinese laboratories. Gain of function work involves modifying viruses to make them more infectious to humans, something that could lead to a pandemic like the one produced by COVID. The virus has infected an estimated 163 million people, killing more than 3.3 million people globally.
“Does the [intelligence community] understand the full scope of dangerous research conducted at the WIV? What are the … knowledge gaps?” Mr. Nunes asked in an April 16 letter to Ms. Haines.
Other information sought by Republicans includes details of collaboration between foreign scientists and the WIV and whether intelligence agencies produced any threat reports on the collaboration.
Suppression of intelligence among spy agency analysts was disclosed during the closing days of the Trump administration. Then-DNI John Ratcliffe in January accused U.S. intelligence analysts of politicization for playing down China’s role in meddling in the Nov. 3 presidential elections.
“From my unique vantage point as the individual who consumes all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence on the People’s Republic of China, I do not believe the majority view expressed by [intelligence community] analysts fully and accurately reflects the scope of the Chinese government’s efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections,” Mr. Ratcliffe stated in a Jan. 7 report.
Mr. Ratcliffe stated that “the politicization of China election influence reporting” resulted from “undue pressure being brought to bear on analysts who offered an alternative view based on the intelligence.”
Intelligence analysts instead highlighted Russian interference in the elections.
Ms. Haines, during a nomination hearing in January, vowed to prevent the politicization of intelligence. As DNI she promised to “send the clear message to the intelligence community that we are expected to produce apolitical, unvarnished intelligence.”