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U.S. Energy Department reportedly backs COVID-19 Chinese lab leak theory with 'low confidence'

The U.S. Energy Department has concluded, with "low confidence" but based on new intelligence, that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 likely emerged from a virus lab in Wuhan, China, in an accidental leak, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations reported Sunday, citing a classified intelligence update recently provided to the White House and Congress. 

The Energy Department, which runs a network of national labs, was previously undecided between the lab leak theory of the pandemic's origins and the hypothesis that the virus spread to humans naturally from an animal. The new assessment puts the Energy Department in the minority. Of the eight agencies investigating the pandemic's origins, four say (with "low confidence") that the natural transmission theory is most likely, as does the National Intelligence Council. The CIA and another agency are undecided, and the FBI leans (with "moderate confidence") toward the lab leak theory. 

It isn't clear what information Energy Department scientists obtained to nudge the department out of the undecided camp. "Some officials briefed on the intelligence said that it was relatively weak," The New York Times reports. "While the department shared the information with other agencies, none of them changed their conclusions." There is agreement in the U.S. intelligence community that China did not create the coronavirus in a lab as a biological weapon. 

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan declined to address the new intelligence directly on CNN Sunday, but he did confirm that the intelligence community has "a variety of views" on the pandemic's origins and noted that President Biden "specifically requested that the national labs, which are part of the Energy Department, be brought into this assessment because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here." 

Both the lab leak theory and natural transmission are considered plausible explanations for how the coronavirus infected humans, upending societies and leading to nearly seven million deaths worldwide, including more than a million in the U.S. Scientists, intelligence officials, and lawmakers say figuring out how the virus emerged would help the world prepare for, and hopefully prevent, a next pandemic. Some also argue that China needs to be held accountable for, if nothing more, keeping the initial outbreak secret from the world until it was too late to contain it and stonewalling international efforts to study the pandemic's origins.