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U.S. Dept of Energy says with 'low confidence' that COVID may have leaked from a lab

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. The U.S. government still has no consensus, no certainty, on how the COVID-19 outbreak began more than three years ago. But there is this new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, and that report concluded with what it calls low confidence that COVID might have leaked from a lab in China.

To break all of this down for us, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and Michaeleen Doucleff from NPR's science team. Hey to both of you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: All right. So this is all very confusing. Greg, can we just start with you? What exactly is in this new assessment from the Department of Energy, and why are we hearing about it only now?

MYRE: Well, we're hearing about it because The Wall Street Journal broke the story on Sunday, saying that the Energy Department did produce this new report. It has shared it with the White House and some members of Congress. Now, the paper said it spoke with people who've read the report, but the intelligence in it is classified, so these folks didn't share the evidence that apparently persuaded the Energy Department to change its assessment to say they now think it's most likely that it was a lab leak that started COVID. Previously, the Energy Department wasn't taking a position between the sort of two main possibilities - one being a natural transmission from an animal to a human, possibly at the seafood market in Wuhan, China, the other being this potential lab leak, possibly at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses.

CHANG: OK, so two competing theories right now. Michaeleen, how does the U.S. Department of Energy report align with or compare with what the scientific community thinks about the origin of the outbreak? Like, what does the scientific data say?

DOUCLEFF: The scientific community is in direct conflict with this new report. There is strong consensus among scientists who study the origin of pandemics. They say there's a large amount of evidence supporting a natural origin. Specifically, the data point to the pandemic starting at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, with the virus jumping from a caged animal into people there.

Last year, there were two papers published in the journal Science which outline the evidence for this. They showed photographic evidence that in one stall of the market there were caged wild animals known to be highly susceptible to COVID and known to spew the virus into the air. Inside this particular stall, scientists found SARS-CoV-2 virus on several surfaces. The papers also show epidemiological evidence that probably thousands of people were infected at this market in December 2019 and how the pandemic literally radiated out from this market.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So going back to the U.S. government, Greg, I mean, the Energy Department is just one part of the government involved in this whole investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you give us the bigger picture of what the thinking is among various government agencies at this point?

MYRE: Sure. President Biden, early in his administration, back in early 2021, he asked for an intelligence community report. What do we know? What can we find out about the origin of COVID? So eight of the intelligence agencies are involved in this, all doing their own work but also cooperating. The bottom line is still they don't know for sure. There's no real consensus in the government. Now, of these eight, four lean toward it being a natural transmission but with low confidence; two haven't made a judgment either way, the CIA being one of these two; and now the other two lean toward a lab leak. The FBI says it has moderate confidence that it was a lab leak and the Energy Department, as we've just heard, saying with low confidence.

The intelligence community put out a report in October of 2021. This Energy Department assessment that we're talking about now is the most significant update since then. But again, I want to stress, there's no government consensus, and it could well get harder and harder to find one as we get further and further from the outbreak at the end of 2019.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. Well, Michaeleen, how is the scientific community responding to this latest assessment from the DOE that it disagrees with?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So I reached out to several of the authors on the science papers that I just described. And they noted several issues with the DOE assessment of what we know. You know, first of all, this low-confidence designation - what it means. And I'm quoting the federal government here. It means the information is, quote, "scant, questionable, fragmented or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from this information."

CHANG: OK.

DOUCLEFF: Scientists I talked to say this is not conclusive proof that a lab leak is equally as plausible as an animal origin. And right now, we're hearing about secondhand reports of a DOE assessment that was made with low confidence. Scientists tell me that currently that does not negate the large amount of evidence pointing to a natural origin at the seafood market.

CHANG: OK. Well, meanwhile, Greg, China right now is pushing back, saying the U.S. is using this whole COVID issue as a political weapon. How does that fit into the larger issue of U.S.-China relations at this moment?

MYRE: Theoretically, this could have been a point of cooperation, reaching some sort of scientific answer on how COVID began more than three years ago. The U.S., China, the rest of the world would certainly like to know that. Instead, it's just added to the already fraught relationship. We've been dealing with the Chinese balloon that flew across the U.S. before it was shot down. Over the weekend, we've had the CIA director talk about the belief that China is considering sending weapons to Russia for the war in Ukraine. So instead of lessening tensions, improving the relationship in any way, this is just adding to the friction.

CHANG: That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and Michaeleen Doucleff from NPR's science team. Thank you to both of you for adding clarification in the middle of all this confusion.

DOUCLEFF: You're welcome.

MYRE: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And a note - this evening FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly commented on the FBI's position for the first time. He reiterated the agency's position on Fox News that the origin of the pandemic is, quote, "most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan." Now, this is a conclusion the FBI had issued earlier with, quote, "moderate confidence." It should also be noted that several other U.S. intelligence agencies do not agree with this assessment, and no one is certain of the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wray added that the FBI's work on the matter continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.