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SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that leads to COVID-19, was not developed as a biological weapon, the U.S. intelligence community said after a 90-day investigation into the disease’s origins.
Why this matters: Since the first case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, near the end of 2019, the world has demanded answers for its possible origins. Among those theorized in public is the infamous “lab leak theory,” which claims that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a laboratory in Wuhan.
- Former President Donald Trump was among the earliest public figures to wonder if the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory. In April 2020, he promised “a very thorough examination” of the possibility, and later in September, he urged the United Nations to hold China accountable for having “unleashed this plague onto the world.”
- At the time, the idea was largely rejected by scientists and was dismissed as a conspiracy theory. It was also considered political rhetoric because of Trump’s repeated use of phrases such as “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “kung flu” and others in reference to COVID-19, which some have blamed for the rise in reports of anti-Asian incidents.
- It was not until May, after President Joe Biden ordered a closer review of COVID-19’s origins, when the lab leak theory gained prominence as a legitimate possibility. He said the intelligence community has called it one of “two likely scenarios,” the other being human contact from an infected animal, also known as natural exposure.
Investigation findings: Biden’s order required the intelligence community to report back in 90 days with a more definitive conclusion. On Friday, Aug. 27, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released an unclassified report of the community’s findings.
- The community, which consists of 18 intelligence agencies, were divided on the origin of COVID-19. However, they still recognized the plausibility of the same two scenarios: natural exposure and lab-associated incident.
- Four agencies, as well as the National Intelligence Council, had “low confidence” that the virus originated in nature, while one agency had “moderate confidence” that it came from a lab incident. Analysts from three other agencies were unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information.
- While the community was unable to trace a true origin, they found that the virus “was not developed as a biological weapon.” They also assessed that Chinese officials “did not have foreknowledge of the virus” before the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
China’s response: The intelligence community stressed that China’s cooperation was vital in order to reach a conclusive assessment of COVID-19’s origins. This remained a challenge, however, as China allegedly continued “to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the U.S.”
- After the report’s release, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. reportedly slammed the U.S. for scapegoating Beijing “for its own failures in fighting the virus.” It also warned that the report would escalate anti-Asian incidents.
- “The approach that they have adopted will only disturb and destroy global efforts to trace its origins and control the pandemic, mislead the American public and prompt a new wave of discrimination and violence against Asians,” the Embassy said, according to the South China Morning Post. “The Chinese Embassy solemnly warns Chinese nationals in the U.S. to step up their safety precautions and be alert to the discrimination and violence on Asians.”
- In another statement, Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu denied the U.S. claim that China has been uncooperative, noting that Beijing welcomed World Health Organization (WHO) experts twice for origins tracing research. Earlier this year, a WHO-China team conducted a 28-day research in China and released a joint report containing “authoritative, professional and science-based conclusions.”
What Asian Americans are saying: Since the onset of COVID-19, more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate. However, experts believe this is only a fraction of the actual numbers.
- Ahead of the intelligence report’s release, more than 20 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations urged Biden to take extra precaution when announcing findings. “The sad but undeniable truth is that the simple existence of that report will put our communities at risk. We recognize your Administration’s legitimate interest in identifying the source of this pandemic for the purpose of preventing future outbreaks. At the same time, perception matters,” the coalition said in part.
- Prior to the report, The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), one of the organizations, also launched an Anti-Hate Rapid Response Toolkit to equip officials, activists, community leaders and the public with information and safety resources for addressing anti-AAPI hate. Among its features is a checklist on how to better respond during an actual incident.
- In May, Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. It seeks to accelerate the investigation of coronavirus-related hate crimes, establish online reporting systems and increase public awareness campaigns.
Featured Image via The White House