A State Department fact sheet released by the Trump administration in January said investigators fell ill in the fall of 2019, but stopped short of saying they had been hospitalized.
Importantly, the intelligence community does not yet know what the researchers were actually sick with, the people briefed said, and continues to have little confidence in their assessments of the precise origins of the virus beyond the fact that it came from China.
“At the end of the day, there is still nothing final,” said one of the people who has seen the intelligence.
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National Intelligence Director Avril Haines told lawmakers during the Global Hearing on Threats last month that “the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the COVID-19 virus was initially transmitted,” an assessment that does not has changed, said two of the people briefed on intelligence.
Current intelligence reinforces the belief that the virus likely originated naturally, from contact between animals and humans, the sources said.
But that does not exclude the possibility that the virus was the result of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where research on the coronavirus in bats was underway.
The World Health Organization conducted an investigation into the origins of the pandemic and concluded in a report that the risk of an accident was “extremely low.”
The report said that “there were no reports of respiratory illnesses consistent with COVID-19 during the weeks / months leading up to December 2019, and there was no serological evidence of infection in workers through specific serological tests for SARS-CoV-2” .
Disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who worked on the WHO team, told CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in February that “there really is no evidence yet that this comes from a laboratory.”
He noted that the researchers were evaluated and no evidence of COVID antibodies was found, and said the lab was “very well run.”
“That hypothesis is not completely ruled out,” Dr. Daszak said.
“It is a conclusion that is extremely unlikely and that there is a much more likely hypothesis.”
But the WHO research was quickly criticized by the United States, the United Kingdom and other governments for its limited access to “original and complete data and samples.”
The organization was also accused of being too deferential to China during the course of the study, which was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists, several of them from state institutions.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has long been investigating the origins of the pandemic, received a classified report on the matter last week, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The source declined to say whether the intelligence report mentioning the hospitalized investigators was discussed during the briefing.
Current and former intelligence officials say the idea that the virus was accidentally released from the laboratory in Wuhan is reasonable, although they caution that there is no high-confidence assessment of that possibility.
In the final days of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaned on the possibility that the virus was leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV.
Despite intelligence being inconclusive, Pompeo released a fact sheet saying that the US had evidence that WIV researchers had been ill in the fall of 2019 with COVID-like symptoms and that the lab, where they were had studied the coronavirus in bats, there was a history of military research.
The process to declassify the intelligence in that fact sheet took a long time, and certain details were removed from the final version that was released, sources familiar with the process told CNN.
By contrast, the Biden administration has not declassified any intelligence on the origins of COVID-19 and has not indicated that it plans to do so.
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One of the challenges in developing any certainty is access to the laboratory itself.
China delayed access to international investigators for months after the initial outbreak, virtually guaranteeing that the lab was thoroughly cleaned before any forensic analysis could be performed, and investigators were also not allowed to view the original data records. that scientists say would be critical to understanding. the origins of the virus.
A key way to find an answer would be to run genetic sequencing on the original samples that the Wuhan lab staff were working on.
But “the Chinese are never going to allow that,” said a person familiar with the underlying intelligence.
“My own personal belief is that we will never know the answer to this,” this person said.
“And the CIA is not going to find the answer, because that would suggest that the Chinese are looking for it themselves,” which this person said no.
“If the answer exists, it will not be found by traditional espionage,” this person added.