The US and China are mired in a high-stakes info war related to the origins of the novel coronavirus, with US officials alleging that the virus may have been created in and leaked by a Chinese biolab, and the People’s Republic directing questions to the World Health Organization about the mysterious 2019 shutdown of a US military lab in Maryland.
US intelligence agencies have gotten their hands on genetic blueprint data from virus samples being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and are studying the information to see if it can help uncover Covid’s origins, CNN reports, citing multiple people said to be familiar with the investigation.
The news network was not told how agencies supposedly got hold of the sensitive information, but its sources said it may have been hacked from computers connected to external cloud-based servers which were involved in creating and processing the data.
US spooks are said to have tapped into the Department of Energy’s National Labs and their supercomputers to help process the information in accordance with President Biden’s request in May that intelligence put a report on his desk about coronavirus’s possible origins by the end of August. Biden made the request after his administration walked back on its earlier assumptions that the virus appeared to be of natural origins (a position long-supported by China and the WHO).
Intelligence agencies have reportedly faced several problems in interpreting the information, including the need to recruit government scientists with the appropriate security clearances and knowledge of Mandarin.
“Obviously there are scientists who are cleared. 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,” one source, who was not authorized to provide his or her identity, said.
After the coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic in 2020, the US accused China of scrubbing genetic data from the estimated 22,000 virus samples being studied at the Wuhan lab from the internet, and charged Beijing with refusing to hand the information to the US side or the WHO.
However, reporting by the Wall Street Journal from earlier this summer found that the US’s own National Institutes of Health mysteriously scrubbed over a dozen gene sequences from its databases in June of 2020, supposedly at the request from a Chinese researcher.
Two scientists specializing in coronavirus studies told CNN that they were ‘skeptical’ that the data being studied by intelligence, ‘or any other database’ can offer researchers any new information. “Basically, in [a 2020 research paper published in Nature, the Wuhan Institute of Virology] 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,” Tulane University School of Medicine virologist Dr. Robert Garry said.
The network’s sources indicated that finding potential incriminating evidence in the trove of data wouldn’t been enough in itself to show that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, instead of emerging naturally. Scientists would still need to examine contextual clues to determine what happened, according to the sources. Furthermore, several sources expressed doubts that they would find any “smoking gun” in the genetic data absent some surprise new information.
“Even a complete sequence history is difficult to obtain. And doesn’t really tell us anything about the origins of the pandemic itself without the context,” one source said.
The report on US intelligence agencies’ investigation comes amid over a year-and-a-half of bitter back-and-forth claims by the US and China regarding Covid’s origins, with allegations by Washington that the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab met with counterclaims by Beijing that the US military may have spread the virus at the 2019 Wuhan Military World Games, or that that it may have leaked from the Fort Detrick military biolab in Maryland.
The claims have led scientists in Italy and Switzerland to propose that COVID-19 or a virus very similar to it may have been airborne and spreading months or even years before the official story that it was discovered at a Wuhan wet market before spreading around the world.
At the same time, some Republicans, led by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have asked questions about what US health officials including coronavirus czar Anthony Fauci were doing funding potentially dangerous gain-of-function research involving coronaviruses at Wuhan after US guidelines explicitly restricted such research at American labs due to safety concerns.