US spy agencies admit they may never know if Covid leaked from lab or spread from animals

US agencies say they could not agree on the origin of Covid-19. Credit: AP

US intelligence agencies say they may never be able to conclude how Covid-19 emerged and spread across the world.

The Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said hypotheses involving transmission from animals to humans or a leak from a laboratory are both plausible origins of the virus.

Officials said in an updated assessment of the origin of the pandemic, that experts could not agree on a conclusion because there was not enough information.

However, analysts did agree that they do not believe the virus was developed by China as a bioweapon and that most agencies believe it was not genetically engineered.

The report accused those peddling the theory of spreading misinformation and making scientifically invalid claims.

Chinese officials, who have resisted global pressure to cooperate fully with investigations into the pandemic, criticised the report's findings as an "attempt to politicise this issue".

The ODNI's findings were published in a declassified report which elaborates on a 90-day review released in August.

It was ordered by President Joe Biden amid growing momentum for the theory that the virus leaked from a lab - something initially widely dismissed by experts, while the World Health Organization said it was "highly unlikely".

China has not yet provided access to genetic sequences of coronaviruses kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology - in the city where the first Covid cases were detected - which remains a subject of speculation for its research and reported safety problems.

A man wearing a face mask walking in Wuhan, where the first Covid cases were detected Credit: Chinatopix/AP

The ODNI report concluded that one intelligence agency believed with "moderate confidence" that the first human infection was linked to a lab.

Four other agencies said with "low confidence" that the virus was initially transmitted from an animal to a human.

The report says that "clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earlier Covid-19 cases" have not been passed on the the global scientific community, meaning it remains difficult to come to a conclusion on each theory.

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Investigators still want China to provide access to records and tissue samples from several markets in Wuhan, including the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, Qiyimen Live Animal Market, Dijiao Outdoor Pet Market and others.

Scientists originally believed the virus emerged from animals sold at the Huanan market, which has since been ruled out by some as the origin site.

The full report says the Wuhan Institute of Virology “previously created chimeras, or combinations, of SARS-like coronaviruses, but this information does not provide insight into whether SARS Cov-2 was genetically engineered by the WIV.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington criticised the report and said in a statement to Reuters news agency: "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."