Theories about the coronavirus being released as a result of a lab accident in Wuhan, China continue, but is there any truth to them? U.S. intelligence agencies certainly seem to think so, although there is a growing number of news reports from mainstream outlets seeking to discount the theory.
U.S. intelligence: coronavirus may have come from Wuhan lab accident
Citing information from unnamed U.S. officials, Newsweek reports that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency updated its view on the origin of the coronavirus to suggest that it may have been released as a result of a lab accident in Wuhan. In January, intelligence officials "judged that the outbreak probably occurred naturally."
However, now they have included the possibility that COVID-19 was released "accidentally" as a result of "unsafe laboratory practices" in Wuhan. The classified report is entitled "China: Origins of COVID-19 Outbreak Remain Unknown."
Like many experts, it rules out the possibility that COVID-19 was engineered by human hands or intentionally released as a bioweapon. Newsweek also said every scientist it interviewed rejected the idea that China purposely released the virus.
A spokesperson for U.S. intelligence agencies told Newsweek that the intelligence community "has not collectively agreed on any one theory." The problem is that it has thus far been impossible to trace the origin of COVID-19.
Evidence of coronavirus caused by a Wuhan lab accident?
Newsweek reports that it took over 10 years for scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to trace the SARS outbreak to bats found in caves in Yunnan province. In February, China's Academy for Military Medical Scientists said it was "impossible for them to scientifically determine" if the novel coronavirus was released due to a lab accident in Wuhan or anywhere else.
China's foreign ministry said last week that the World Health Organization didn't find any evidence that the COVID-19 outbreak originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He added that the director of the Galveston National Laboratory in the U.S. "made it clear that our laboratory is just as well managed as labs in Europe and the U.S."
However, the report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cites U.S. and Chinese scientists who said approximately 33% of the first 41 cases of COVID-19 did not have any "direct exposure" to the animal market that has been identified as the alleged source of the outbreak. Reports about lax safety protocols at the Wuhan lab further offered reasonable suspicion that the coronavirus was released as a result of an accident at the lab.
Intermediary animal theory
The Guardian explored the possibility that COVID-19 was released naturally through human contact with an infected animal. One theory that has circulated is that an anteater-like animal called a pangolin served as the intermediary animal between bats and humans. However, researchers haven't been able to prove this.
One thing that is known is that bats aren't sold at the market that's supposedly the source of the outbreak. Thus, either the theory of an intermediary animal is true, or the coronavirus was actually released due to a lab accident in Wuhan.
Pangolins aren't officially sold at the wet food market either, according to Nature, but The Guardian states that it is illegal to sell them. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, pangolins are "the most illegally traded mammal in the world." They're reportedly prized for their meat and possible medicinal properties of their scales. Thus, it is possible that the animals were sold at the live animal market in Wuhan unofficially.
According to a study in The Lancet, 27 of the first 41 cases of COVID-19 had direct exposure to the live animal market. However, the first known case of the virus did not, and neither did 14 other cases, amounting to the 33% cited by Newsweek. Thus, the theory of the coronavirus originating as a result of a Wuhan lab accident can't be dismissed entirely.
Doubts about the accidental release theory
NPR spoke with researchers last week who said there's almost no chance that the coronavirus was released as a result of a lab accident in Wuhan or anywhere else. The assessment stemmed from 10 researchers who are familiar with lab accidents and how coronavirus research is conducted.
The scientists say a string of coincidences and departures from experimental protocols would have had to occur in order for a lab accident to be responsible for the release of COVID-19. The first coincidence is that researchers would have to stumble across the virus in nature, and most viruses carried by bats can't infect humans.
NPR also states that even researchers who could have stumbled across the virus would have been unlikely to get infected. They reportedly wear protective gear and freeze samples of bat urine, feces, blood and saliva in nitrogen immediately. When scientists start to work in the lab to see what they collected, the samples they handle are said to be inactivated using a chemical process that breaks them apart while preserving their genetic material so they can be studied.
Do those doubts really address the suspicions?
However, given the number of reports about researchers in Wuhan not wearing the proper safety gear when handling bat coronaviruses and samples, it seems like no guarantee that scientists were following all standard protocols can be made. The National Review takes issue with NPR's report.
The Washington Post obtained some cables from the State Department indicating that the Wuhan lab had "a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory."
NPR also called attention to three documented cases of the SARS virus accidentally being released from labs, although it said the circumstances were "vastly different" from the current situation. The National Review points out that negligence was to blame for two of the three incidents. Thus, it fails to address the argument that negligence could have happened with COVID-19. There are also plenty of reports about other lab accidents in other countries, which means China isn't immune to the possibility.