Evidence of virus lab leak is convincing, says ex-intel director

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A Trump-era Cabinet official on Tuesday said the intelligence community should be more aggressive in concluding the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab, telling Congress the bank of evidence indicating a spillover from nature is “nearly empty and tenuous.”

John L. Ratcliffe, who served as the director of intelligence during the first year of the pandemic, said if you put the competing theories side by side, the lab-leak side of the ledger would be long and convincing. He pointed to China‘s efforts to destroy lab samples at a Wuhan lab known for risky research, and Beijing‘s efforts to coerce witnesses and strong-arm global health investigators as the virus spread around the world.

“Let me state the bottom line upfront: My informed assessment, as a person with as much or more access than anyone to our government’s intelligence during the initial year of the virus outbreak and pandemic onset, has been and continues to be that a lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense,” Mr. Ratcliffe told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Members of both parties say it’s important to find the source of the virus that causes COVID-19. The search has been hindered by the communist government in Beijing and become a political football in the U.S.

The virus was initially blamed on a wet market in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in 2019 before spreading around the globe in early 2020. It has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide.

The lab-leak theory, which was initially discredited as disinformation by the political left, gained credence late in the Trump administration and was bolstered by evidence that some workers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized for flulike illness before the virus exploded across the city.

Mr. Ratcliffe said efforts to probe the origins were hampered by mainstream media and social media platforms labeling the lab-leak theory as a conspiracy theory.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health tended to emphasize the natural spillover theory, though now the retired doctor says he’s open to investigations into the true origins.

People who attended Tuesday’s hearing wore T-shirts reading, “Jail Fauci,” and sat behind the witnesses.

Mr. Ratcliffe said the CIA could make firmer declarations about a lab leak but is reluctant to wade into the issue.

“Such an assessment would have enormous geopolitical implications that the Biden administration seemingly does not want to face head-on,” Mr. Ratcliffe testified.

The White House says President Biden takes finding the origins seriously, pointing to a variety of intelligence reviews that have produced conflicting results.

Mr. Biden recently signed legislation that requires the director of national intelligence to declassify and report to Congress within 90 days on possible ties between the virus and the lab in Wuhan.

“There is no doubt that the administration has far more information than has been released publicly,” David Feith, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the select subcommittee Tuesday.

Mr. Feith said the intelligence community probably has additional information about six Wuhan researchers who got sick in late 2019 and should disclose it.

Those lab workers remain the “best lead into who or what was patient zero,” he said. “No animal anywhere has been identified as a comparably likely source of the outbreak.”

Another witness said the committee should prepare itself for the fact the U.S. might never get firm answers.

“Absent greater cooperation and transparency from China, which seems highly unlikely, we may never resolve this issue with certainty,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former State Department official and former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production.

However, Mr. Ratcliffe said it is instructive to look at the evidence on both sides.

“There is currently no environmental source identified for COVID-19. There is no intermediate host that has ever been identified. There is no reservoir species that has ever been identified, and COVID-19 was never known to exist in any animal or species before the pandemic began,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “Those are scientific facts that are not disputed and there’s nothing political about that.”

He said it has been 3 1/2 years and every passing month makes it less likely a natural source will be found.

“On the other side of the ledger, it’s overwhelming when you look at China‘s actions and the circumstances surrounding what was going on from a biosafety standpoint at Wuhan, the massive number of coronaviruses, the massive numbers of bats carrying coronaviruses that were brought into Wuhan,” he said. “All of that weighs heavily into making assessments at some confidence level that a lab leak was the origin for this pandemic.”

He said the intelligence community makes assessments all the time with a “fraction of the intelligence that we have available to us here.”

The Department of Energy this year concluded with “low confidence” the coronavirus pandemic resulted from a laboratory leak in China.

Earlier, the FBI concluded with moderate confidence that a lab leak was responsible for the virus’ spread, while intelligence agencies have determined with low confidence the virus emerged from natural channels, according to a review that Mr. Biden ordered in 2021.

Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, released a report Monday that said the preponderance of evidence suggests that the pandemic was caused by unintentional research-related incidents dating as far back as mid-October 2019.

Dr. Robert Kadlec, who played a key role in Operation Warp Speed to craft a COVID-19 vaccine, prepared the report. It said epidemiological modeling and early reports of COVID-19 cases suggested two spillover events within weeks of each other in the fall of 2019 in Wuhan.

Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, told the select committee in March that the virus probably slipped from the lab.

Mr. Redfield and other witnesses testified the virus had a distinct feature, or furin cleavage site, that let the pathogen infect humans easily and was unusual for known coronaviruses, leading them to believe it was likely engineered in a lab.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican who chairs the coronavirus subcommittee, said the panel received an email from the Chinese Embassy in which Beijing said it opposed the hearing.

The chairman said he planned to inform the embassy that intimidation tactics will not work.

Joseph Clark contributed to this story.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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