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U.S. intelligence agencies still divided on COVID-19 origins

WASHINGTON >> U.S. officials released an intelligence report Friday that rejected some points raised by those who argue COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab, instead reiterating that American spy agencies remain divided over how the pandemic began.

The report was issued at the behest of Congress, which in March passed a bill giving U.S. intelligence 90 days to declassify intelligence related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Intelligence officials under President Joe Biden have been pushed by lawmakers to release more material about the origins of COVID-19. But they have repeatedly argued China’s official obstruction of independent reviews has made it perhaps impossible to determine how the pandemic began.

The newest report angered some Republicans who have argued the administration is wrongly withholding classified information and researchers who accuse the U.S. of not being forthcoming.

John Ratcliffe, who served as U.S. director of national intelligence under former President Donald Trump, accused the Biden administration of “continued obfuscation.”

“The lab leak is the only theory supported by science, intelligence, and common sense,” Ratcliffe said in a statement.

There was newfound interest from researchers following the revelation earlier this year that the Department of Energy’s intelligence arm had issued a report arguing for a lab-related incident.

But Friday’s report said the intelligence community has not gone further. Four agencies still believe the virus was transferred from animals to humans, and two agencies — the Energy Department and the FBI — believe the virus leaked from a lab. The CIA and another agency have not made an assessment.

Located in the city where the pandemic is believed to have began, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has faced intense scrutiny for its previous research into bat coronaviruses and its reported security lapses.

The lab genetically engineered viruses as part of its research, the report said, including efforts to combine different viruses.

But the report says U.S. intelligence “has no information, however, indicating that any WIV genetic engineering work has involved SARS-CoV-2, a close progenitor, or a backbone virus that is closely-related enough to have been the source of the pandemic.”

And reports of several lab researchers falling ill with respiratory symptoms in fall 2019 are also inconclusive, the report argues.

U.S. intelligence, the report said, “continues to assess that this information neither supports nor refutes either hypothesis of the pandemic’s origins because the researchers’ symptoms could have been caused by a number of diseases and some of the symptoms were not consistent with COVID-19.”

Responding to the report, the Republican chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and a select subcommittee on the pandemic jointly said they had gathered information in favor of the lab leak hypothesis. Reps. Mike Turner and Brad Wenstrup, both of Ohio, credited the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence for taking a “promising step toward transparency.”

“While we appreciate the report from ODNI, the corroboration of all available evidence along with further investigation into the origins of COVID-19 must continue,” Turner and Wenstrup said.

But Alina Chan, a molecular biologist who has long argued the virus may have originated in the Wuhan lab, noted the public version of the report did not include the names of researchers who fell sick or other details mandated by Congress.

The bill requiring the review allowed intelligence officials to redact information publicly to protect agency sources and methods.

“It’s getting very difficult to believe that the government is not trying to hide what they know about #OriginOfCovid when you see a report like this that contains none of the requested info,” Chan tweeted.

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