The AtlanticThe Atlantic

The lab leak will haunt us forever

By Daniel Engber

28 Feb 2023 · 5 min read

informed Summary


The lab-leak theory lives! Or better put: It never dies. In response to new but unspecified intelligence, the U.S. Department of Energy has changed its assessment of COVID-19’s origins: The agency, which was previously undecided on the matter, now rates a laboratory mishap ahead of a natural spillover event as the suspected starting point. That conclusion, first reported over the weekend by The Wall Street Journal, matches up with findings from the FBI, and also a Senate minority report out last fall that called the pandemic, “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

Then again, the new assessment does not match up with findings from elsewhere in the federal government. In mid-2021, when President Joe Biden asked the U.S. intelligence community for a 90-day review of the pandemic’s origins, the response came back divided: Four agencies, plus the National Intelligence Council, guessed that COVID started (as nearly all pandemics do) with a natural exposure to an infected animal; three agencies couldn’t decide on an answer; and one blamed a laboratory accident. DOE’s revision, revealed this week, means that a single undecided vote has flipped into the lab-leak camp. If you’re keeping count—and, really, what else can one do?—the matter still appears to be decided in favor of a zoonotic origin, by an updated score of 5–2. The lab-leak theory remains the outlier position.

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