The virus which drove the COVID-19 pandemic, killing close to seven million people globally, most likely emerged from a laboratory leak in China, an American media report has said.
Citing a classified intelligence report provided to the White House and key members of Congress, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Huanan market in central China’s Wuhan city was the epicentre of the pandemic.
From its origin there, the SARS-CoV-2 virus rapidly spread to other locations in Wuhan in late 2019 and then to the rest of the world, it said.
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The pandemic’s origin has been the subject of a vigorous debate among academics, intelligence experts and lawmakers.
The findings of the US Department of Energy, on how the virus emerged, came in an update to a document from the Office of National Intelligence director Avril Haines, the newspaper reported on Sunday.
The report highlights how different parts of the intelligence community have arrived at disparate judgments about the origin of COVID-19.
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The Energy Department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory.
Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of natural transmission while two are undecided.
The Energy Department’s conclusion is significant as the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of US national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research.
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COVID-19 caught global health bodies unawares in early 2020. The World Health Organisation has put the worldwide death toll at seven million people.
According to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden has put resources into getting to the bottom of the origin question.
The FBI previously came concluded that the pandemic was likely the result of a lab leak in 2021 with moderate confidence and still holds to this view.
The National Intelligence Council, which conducts long-term strategic analysis, and four agencies, which officials declined to identify, still assess that the virus came about through natural transmission from an infected animal.
Not biological programme
Despite the agencies differing analyses, the update reaffirmed an existing consensus between them that COVID-19 was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons programme, people who have read the classified report told the Wall Street Journal.
The pandemic heightened tensions between the US and China, which US officials alleged was withholding information about the outbreak.
China, which has placed limits on investigations by the WHO, has disputed that the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of its labs in Wuhan, and has suggested it emerged outside China.
(With agency inputs)