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Energy Department says lab leak likely caused COVID pandemic

National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30.  (Yuri Gripas)
By Julian E. Barnes New York Times

WASHINGTON – New intelligence has prompted the Energy Department to conclude that an accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the coronavirus pandemic, although U.S. spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus, U.S. officials said Sunday.

The conclusion was a change from the department’s earlier position that it was undecided on how the virus emerged.

Some officials briefed on the intelligence said that it was relatively weak and that the Energy Department’s conclusion was made with “low confidence,” suggesting its level of certainty was not high. While the department shared the information with other agencies, none of them changed their conclusions, officials said.

Officials would not disclose what the intelligence was. But many of the Energy Department’s insights come from the network of national laboratories it oversees, rather than more traditional forms of intelligence like spy networks or communications intercepts.

Intelligence officials believe the scrutiny of the pandemic’s beginnings could be important to improving global response to future health crises, although they caution that finding an answer about the source of the virus may be difficult or even impossible given Chinese opposition to further research. Scientists say there is a responsibility to explain how a pandemic that has killed almost 7 million people started, and learning more about its origins could help researchers understand what poses the biggest threats of future outbreaks.

The new intelligence and the shift in the department’s view was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Sunday.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, declined to confirm the intelligence. But he said President Joe Biden had ordered that the national labs be brought into the effort to determine the origin of the outbreak so that the government was using “every tool” it had.

In addition to the Energy Department, the FBI has also concluded, with moderate confidence, that the virus first emerged accidentally from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese lab that worked on coronaviruses. Four other intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council have concluded, with low confidence, that the virus most likely emerged through natural transmission, the director of national intelligence’s office announced in October 2021.

Sullivan said those divisions remain.

Leaders of the intelligence community are set to brief Congress on March 8 and 9 as part of annual hearings on global threats.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.