COVID origins: China denounces inconclusive U.S. intelligence report that calls for more transparency from Beijing

Science & Health

The 90-day review of U.S. intelligence on COVID-19 origins, which was completed in August, was highly inconclusive and even discounted several points cited by lab-leak theory proponents, according to a newly declassified summary. Beijing did not respond to the contents of the report, which it dismissed as “political and false.”

covid virus and flashlight
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lashed out yesterday at a newly declassified report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence that summarized the findings of a 90-day review of COVID-19 origins ordered by President Biden back in May.

  • The foreign ministry statement (in English, Chinese) did not respond to any specific findings in the report, but dismissed it as “political and false” and having “no scientific basis or credibility.”
  • Studying the origins of COVID-19 “should and can only be carried out by global scientists in cooperation,” the statement said, adding that the “use of intelligence agencies to trace the origins is in itself an iron-clad proof of politicization.”

What did the report say?

The 18-page report released on October 29, which is a public summary of a classified analysis completed in August, is highly inconclusive on the origins of COVID-19.

  • Only one Intelligence Community agency — identified by the New York Times as the FBI — believes with “moderate confidence” that a “laboratory-associated incident” is the “most likely” origin story for COVID-19.
  • Five agencies, including the National Intelligence Council, lean toward a “natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus” — but all of these agencies have only low confidence in the assessment.
  • The report dismisses some points that proponents of the “lab-leak theory” had cited earlier this year, such as the existence of a furin cleavage site (FCS) in the virus’s spike protein (the COVID-19 virus “could have acquired its FCS through natural recombination with another virus”), the alleged hospital admissions of several virus researchers in Wuhan in autumn 2019 (“Even if confirmed, hospital admission alone would not be diagnostic of COVID-19 infection”), and China’s supposedly suspicious invective about virus origins inquiries (“Beijing’s lack of cooperation on origins [is] not diagnostic of either hypothesis”).
  • The virus “was not developed as a biological weapon,” the report concludes, and it “probably was not genetically engineered” in any way.
  • If a lab incident was involved in an early infection, Chinese researchers and the government “probably were unaware in the initial months that such an incident had occurred.”

Two parts of the report likely rankled Chinese officials the most:

  • The assertion that a lab leak remains “plausible”: While the World Health Organization’s inquiry into COVID origins has also not ruled out a lab leak origin, and merely said it was “extremely unlikely,” the Chinese foreign ministry has previously mischaracterized the WHO finding as having “basically ruled out” a lab leak origin.
  • Calls for more transparency from China: Beijing “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States,” the U.S. report says. In July, China rejected a WHO proposal to audit labs in Wuhan to fully rule out any possibility of a lab leak, and suggested that the origins investigation continue outside of China.