A declassified US intelligence report has reignited debate over whether China bears responsibility for the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report, analysts at an unnamed intelligence agency believe the "dangerous nature" of the science being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), coupled with a lack of safety precautions, led to the coronavirus first jumping from animals to humans.
"Although the [intelligence community] has no indications that WIV research involved SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] or a close progenitor virus, these analysts note that it is plausible that researchers may have unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus without sequencing it during experiments or sampling activities, possibly resulting in asymptomatic or mild infection," the report said.
Other intelligence agencies involved in the report, however, believe it's more likely the virus jumped directly from animals to humans, casting doubt on the "lab leak" theory.
"[These analysts] see the potential that a laboratory worker inadvertently was infected while collecting unknown animal specimens to be less likely than an infection occurring through numerous hunters, farmers, merchants and others who have frequent, natural contact with animals," the report said.
ODNI also dismissed suggestions that Covid-19 originated as a bioweapon, saying proponents of this theory "do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology" and have been accused of spreading disinformation.
The agencies concluded that they may never be able to identify the origins of the virus.
'Complete political farce'
China, once again, hit back at the claims, describing the report as a "complete political farce".
"The US moves of relying on its intelligence apparatus instead of scientists to trace the origins of Covid-19 is a complete political farce," Liu Pengyu, from Washington's Chinese embassy, told Reuters in a statement.
"It will only undermine science-based origins study and hinder the global effort of finding the source of the virus.
"We have been supporting science-based efforts on origins tracing, and will continue to stay actively engaged. That said, we firmly oppose attempts to politicise this issue."
The report's release comes after world leaders, including World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wrote in an editorial that ruling out the lab leak theory would be a mistake.
Published last week in the journal Science, the authors declared the "laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan".
"Since the beginning of this pandemic, scientists from around the world have worked together to understand the events that led to the first human infections," the editorial read.
"But it's clear that scientific processes have been hurt by politicisation, which is why the global scientific community must redouble efforts to drive the scientific process forward."
Earlier this month, the WHO formed the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), a group of international experts from fields including virology, epidemiology, animal health and tropical medicine.
The group's task is two-fold: find out what started Covid-19 and help the world prepare for the next pandemic.
But it's unlikely, despite its repeated protestations, that Beijing won't again stymie efforts to get to the bottom of the virus' origins.
"If you believe that SAGO will answer the question, what was the origins of SARS-CoV-2, then you are sadly mistaken because there is little to no chance of them gaining access to information or on-the-ground investigation as far as China is concerned," professor of global health law at Georgetown University, Lawrence Gostin, told the Washington Post.
– with Rohan Smith