Americans were surprised to learn this week that the U.S. Energy Department has changed its initial assessment on the origins of the virus that sparked the covid pandemic. The department’s analysts now believe that a lab-related accident was most likely, albeit with “low confidence”. Immediately, those who favor a lab-accident hypothesis claimed vindication, while those who favor a natural-origin theory poo-pooed the report.
Both camps are missing the point. The significance of the Energy Department’s disclosure — along with the FBI’s subsequent revelation that it too believes that the coronavirus emerged because of a Wuhan lab leak — is that the government’s investigations are continuing and still turning up new information. Despite years of delays, it’s not too late to get to the bottom of this. The investigations must continue, and the public must be allowed to see all the relevant information. The truth must come out, whatever it is.
The little-known backstory of why the Energy Department’s view has evolved over the past three years is key to understanding why this is taking so long.
As my Post colleagues reported, the new assessment was the product of work by scientists and experts from the U.S. national laboratories, including some from the “Z-Division”, which has decades of experience investigating biological threats. Although we don’t know what new data prompted the Energy Department to change its assessment, nobody can say these experts are unqualified or unserious. They are some of the best scientific investigators, including biologists, in the world.
What’s not widely known is that Z-Division scientists were already investigating the origins of the pandemic three years ago. But after reporting internally in May 2020 that both theories were plausible, experts at the national laboratories were pulled off the case.
“We were working with the Z-Division but then they told us their headquarters had told them to stand down”, said Thomas DiNanno, who helped lead the State Department’s inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus in 2020.
In May 2021, when President Biden ordered the intelligence community to conduct a 90-day review of intelligence related to the origins of the coronavirus, he made a point of directing the national laboratories to resume their work on the issue as part of that review. And after the review was over, Biden told them to keep at it.
“President Biden specifically requested that the National Labs, which are part of the Department of Energy, be brought into this assessment because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here”, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN last weekend.
This is crucial because the issue of expertise is constantly invoked by those who play down the lab-accident hypothesis. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray alluded to this when confirming this week to Fox News that the FBI has long assessed (reportedly with “moderate confidence”) that a lab accident was the most likely source. The FBI’s assessment was conducted by specialists who focus on “the dangers of biological threats, which include things like novel viruses like covid”, he said. The FBI team was also reportedly supported by the National Bioforensic Analysis Center at Fort Detrick, Md.
On the other side of the ledger, there are four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council that reported in 2021 that they favor a natural-origin theory — all with low confidence, by the way. But those agencies relied largely on outside experts whom they have refused to identify to Congress, according to a December report by Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Meanwhile, U.S. government organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent the past three years thwarting congressional requests for transparency on their extensive work with the Wuhan labs on bat coronavirus research. Only through lengthy court battles and leaks has some of that information trickled out.
There are understandable reasons the coronavirus origins debate became so politicized in 2020. Then-President Donald Trump, for example, used racist rhetoric when talking about the issue, poisoning it for Democrats. But the fact that U.S. government organizations have been sitting on relevant information for three years is inexcusable. Biden can and should compel his federal agencies to comply with the congressional requests for this material.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many intelligence agencies line up on either side; the majority can be wrong and the minority can be right. The only way forward is to turn over every rock and increase pressure on the Chinese government to be more transparent about what it knows.
The World Health Organization investigation is widely acknowledged to have been flawed, and is now stalled. The U.S. government is the only entity with the ability to continue this investigation until the end, wherever it leads. The latest Energy Department assessment is just one small piece of that still unfinished puzzle. This is not a political matter. It’s a crucial issue of national security and public health.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.