US intelligence agencies are looking through a large trove of virus samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in a bid to determine whether COVID-19 may have originated there after the theory was largely dismissed last year.
The search is part of President Joe Biden‘s push for the intelligence community to reach a definitive answer on the origins of COVID-19 by the end of this month.
Intelligence officials have decided on two likely scenarios: that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident, Biden said when he announced a 90-day push for answers on May 26.
Multiple sources have told CNN that intelligence agencies are now studying a giant catalog containing the genetic blueprints of virus samples studied at the lab in Wuhan.
It’s unclear how the US obtained access to the data given that the Chinese government has been uncooperative in efforts to track down the origins of the virus.
China refused to hand over raw data on 174 early cases to a team of investigators at the World Health Organization, according to Reuters. The country has defended its transparency efforts.
A leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China has been identified as one of two possible sources of COVID-19 by US intelligence officials
The earliest cases of COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan in October and November 2019, according to the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections. The first cases were linked to visits to the Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Analyzing the trove of new data presents technological and staffing challenges.
Agencies are using supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s National Labs, a collection of 17 elite government research institutions, CNN reports.
Finding qualified staff to analyze the highly complex Chinese data has also been an obstacle.
‘Obviously there are scientists who are (security) cleared,’ one source told CNN.
‘But Mandarin-speaking ones who are cleared? That’s a very small pool. And not just any scientists, but ones who specialize in bio? So you can see how this quickly becomes difficult.’
Investigators have long sought genetic data from 22,000 virus samples at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but it’s unclear if that’s the trove the government is analyzing now.
Donald Trump placed blame on China during his presidency, going so far as referring to COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ and ‘kung flu.’
The virus’s origin caused a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US.
Meanwhile, disease experts and media outlets dismissed the lab leak theory during the first half of 2020.
‘Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,’ Rutgers University chemical biology professor Richard Ebright told the Washington Post in January 2020.
‘The vast majority of new, nasty diseases … come from nature,’ he said.
In November 2019, three researchers at the Chinese lab got sick enough to seek medical care
In November 2019, three researchers at the Wuhan lab got sick enough to seek medical care, according to a Wall Street Journal article based on a US intelligence report.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, recently defended the National Institute of Health’s decision to give $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2014 after concerns that the research could have contributed to the coronavirus outbreak.
‘If you go back to when this research really started, and look at the scientific rationale for it, it was a peer-reviewed proposal that was peer-reviewed and given a very high rating for the importance of why it should be done, to be able to go and do a survey of what was going on among the bat population, because everyone in the world was trying to figure out what the original source of the original SARS-CoV-1 was,’ Fauci said.
The effort to pin down the origins of COVID-19 has been highly politicized.
Republicans in Congress have called on Democrats to investigate the origins of the virus, but Democrats have remained focused on the economic and health effects of the virus and on President Trump’s response.
Democratic Reps. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Carolyn Maloney of New York, both on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, rejected calls from Republicans to investigate the origins of the virus in June.
‘We are concerned that your request may be designed not to obtain new information to protect Americans’ health, but to deflect accountability for the Trump Administration’s failed response to this crisis,’ Clyburn and Maloney wrote.
‘In early 2020, President Trump applauded China’s ‘efforts and transparency’ as the coronavirus spread around the globe, and said he wanted to ‘thank President Xi’ for his handling of the virus.
‘He refused to take action to stop the spread of the virus across the United States, telling Americans, ‘One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
The coronavirus has killed more than 4.2 million people worldwide, and over 615,000 in the US alone.
‘Regardless of how it started, no origin can excuse the lethal recklessness of Donald Trump’s mismanagement of COVID-19. Nothing,’ said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the subcommittee, according to Politico.
One expert is skeptical that the data being analyzed by US intelligence at has anything new.
‘Basically in [a 2020 research paper published in Nature], the WIV talked about all the sequences they had up until a certain point in time – it’s what most scientists virologists believe, that’s pretty much what they had,’ Dr. Robert Garry, a virologist at the Tulane University School of Medicine, told CNN.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not immediately respond to questions from DailyMail.com about the latest data.