China Dismisses FBI Chief’s Claim That COVID-19 ‘Most Likely’ Originated From Lab Leak
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning

A US intelligence chief has claimed that COVID-19 most likely originated in a laboratory in China, a claim that was promptly dismissed by the Chinese government. 

“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” Christopher Wray, the head of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told Fox News on Monday.

He said that the FBI had teams of experts spanning across topics that assess the threats posed by various actors. “…and here we’re talking about a potential leak from a Chinese- government-controlled lab that killed millions of Americans”.

However, on Tuesday China dismissed his comments as “political manipulation”, and urged the US to respect “science and facts”

“The origins-tracing of SARS-CoV-2 is about science and should not be politicised,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning.

“China has always supported and participated in global science-based origins-tracing,” she stressed, adding that a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be “extremely unlikely” according to the “science-based, authoritative conclusion reached by the experts of the WHO-China joint mission after field trips to the lab in Wuhan and in-depth communication with researchers”.

Certain parties should stop rehashing the “lab leak” narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing, she added.

“Based on the poor track record of fraud and deception of the US intelligence community, the conclusions they draw have no credibility whatsoever,” added Mao.

‘Low confidence’ assessment 

The FBI chief’s statement comes close on the heels of the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) “low confidence” assessment that the pandemic was the result of an unintended laboratory leak in China, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) over the weekend. 

The WSJ report stated that the DoE’s claim is a result of new classified intelligence in its possession, which has been submitted to the US Congress. This is reportedly an update to its 2021 document which said that the department was “undecided” on the origins of the pandemic. 

Apart from the FBI and DoE, other members of the US Intelligence community have attributed the origins of the pandemic to various other causes, such as zoonotic spillover. Two of the agencies are undecided. 

According to a US National Intelligence Overview document published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a low confidence level indicates that “the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information, or that the Intelligence Community has significant concerns or problems with the information sources”. 

Lack of concrete evidence 

The claims from the FBI and the DoE have evoked a barrage of responses from the scientific communit

Pointing out that the latest statements from the FBI and the DoE are based on classified information, Dr Angela Rassmussen, a virologist and a research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, tweeted that there is still no publicly available evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a lab accident.

She emphasized that the “low confidence” level attributed to the latest statement by the DoE raises doubts about the strength of the evidence in its possession. 

“However, given the “low confidence” rating and the DOE’s failure to persuade any other IC, I’m extremely sceptical that this intel comprises any such evidence,” she tweeted. 

Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leeds, too echoed Dr Rasmussen’s thoughts on the lab leak theory. 

“If there’s something that’s changed in the evidence base, let’s hear it. Otherwise, there remains not a shred of meaningful evidence that SARS2 was engineered or leaked. End of,” he tweeted. 

WHO demands more Chinese cooperation

However, the origins of the pandemic are far from conclusive and the World Health Organization (WHO) has been at the forefront of investigations, demanding more cooperation from China to help the world better understand how the pandemic originated. 

In January 2023, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 Technical lead at the WHO, said that the agency was working with China to fill some “very important information gaps”. 

“We have requested further information to have those sequences be shared publicly so that a deeper analysis and more phylogenetic analysis can be done so that we could look mutation by mutation to really assess what is circulating there,” she added. 

In February 2020, as the SARS-CoV-2 started spreading across the world, the WHO set up a team of 25 national and international experts to visit China to understand the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report released by the WHO after the mission stated that the possibility of the pandemic originating from a lab accident in China is low. 

“Prior to December 2019, there is no evidence of circulation of SARS-CoV-2 amongst people globally and the surveillance programme in place was limited regarding the number of samples processed and therefore the risk of accidental culturing SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory is extremely low,” the report said. 

However, the independent team that visited China had limited access to various sites and patient medical records, leading to the WHO repeatedly demanding more cooperation from China to enable better understanding of the origins of the pandemic. 

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