Lawmakers are still pondering the origins of COVID-19, despite classified information about lab leak theory

The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain a mystery more than three years after its onset and may never be known definitively, senators told the Washington Times Thursday after emerging from a behind-closed-door briefing on the issue by officials from the Department of Energy and of the intelligence community.

Members of the Senate Energy Committee sought answers from DOE officials following the agency’s recent secret report that there is little confidence the disease arose from an accidental lab leak in China, one of two main origin theories divisive by US intelligence agencies.

Senators told The Times that letters offered clarity about why the DOE’s assessment had changed from a tie, but less about the origins of the pandemic.

“It’s going to be up in the air for a while. I don’t think anyone has an exact opinion on this,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, Democrat from West Virginia and chair of the committee. “The bottom line is that we know it started in the Wuhan region of China and spread quickly, and we hope it never happens again.” The more we know, the better we can prepare for it.”

The origins of COVID-19 have been the subject of intense political debate for years, with the second theory being that it was transmitted from an animal to a human, possibly at a wet market in Wuhan that sells fresh meat, seafood and fruit.

But based on information available to the public and from classified settings, Senator Josh Hawley said the lab leak theory is more likely, despite disagreements between intelligence agencies.

“It looks to me like the absolute most likely scenario is that it comes from a lab leak,” said the Missouri Republican. “I have more clarity as to why [DOE] have changed their assessments.”

The briefing was described as the highest level of classification known as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, or TS/SCI, according to Arizona Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly. This means that the legislature can only disclose a limited amount.

Mr Kelly said he had not been offered any assurances about the origin of COVID-19. He stressed fears about the roots of the pandemic and future threats from China, which has tried to hide information about the virus.

“Why should anyone be reassured? This is a worldwide pandemic regardless of its origin. We continue to have concerns about the origin of this virus,” he said. “But beyond that, programs that China and other countries are working on that pose a future risk to us are very worrying.”

The DOE did not respond to a request for comment officials briefed the senators about.

The agency’s report notes “low confidence” in a lab leak from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. The report was leaked to the Wall Street Journal last month, underscoring intelligence community uncertainty about its origins and reigniting political debate.

In addition to the DOE’s assessment, four government agencies and the National Intelligence Council believe with low confidence that COVID-19 spread from animals to humans, two say with low or medium confidence it was a lab leak, and two are still undecided.

An unclassified 2021 provenance summary by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed the assessments, which did not disclose which specific agencies reached each conclusion. It has since been revealed that the FBI has moderate confidence that the leak was a lab leak.

A bill by Mr. Hawley that would require the Biden administration to disclose the origins of the pandemic sailed through Congress last week without a single dissenting vote. President Biden has not indicated whether he will sign the measure, but Congress would likely have a veto-proof majority if it defeated the bill.

“Frankly, I think our intelligence gathering efforts will continue to progress as the work of these various [intelligence community] agencies is made public,” said Mr. Hawley. “What’s going to happen is the public is going to read it and … there’s going to be pretty tremendous public pressure to get to the bottom of it.”

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