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Classified Energy Department report on COVID's origins rekindles ongoing debate

Energy Dept. weighs in on COVID lab leak theory
Energy Department report finds COVID lab leak theory plausible 02:22

A new classified report by the U.S. Energy Department has concluded with "low confidence" that it is plausible the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a laboratory leak, two sources familiar with the U.S. government's pandemic origins investigation tell CBS News. 

It was not clear if the "low confidence" assessment by the Department of Energy reflected weak data or the quantity of information, but it has nevertheless rekindled an ongoing debate that continues to roil the political, scientific and intelligence communities.

The Department of Energy report was recently shared with a limited number of lawmakers. The department operates a network of national labs that include some of the government's most qualified biologists handling bioscience and biotechnology research. 

While the report is classified, the sources told CBS News they believe it may be independent from an earlier analysis performed by the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore Labs that pointed toward a potential accidental leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked about the report in an interview with CNN on Sunday, and said President Biden "specifically requested" that the National Labs be brought into the assessment "because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here."

But he also noted that there were "a variety of views in the intelligence community."

"Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other. A number of them have said they just don't have enough information to be sure," Sullivan said. "...If we gain any further insight or information, we will share it with Congress and we will share it with the American people. But, right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question."

The news about the Department of Energy's finding was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

While there is no consensus within the intelligence community on the origins of COVID-19, the FBI — which runs the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate — and the Energy Department have found an accidental lab leak plausible, adding to a body of circumstantial evidence that points to the Wuhan lab.  

Other researchers say evidence points to a Wuhan market where live animals were sold as the early epicenter of the outbreak, with the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, likely spilling over from bats into people, either directly or through another animal host. No confirmed animal source has been identified. 

A highly anticipated intelligence inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, ordered by President Biden and released in 2021, was largely inconclusive. The intelligence community "remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19. All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident," the brief summary stated.

An expert group from the World Health Organization said last year that "key pieces of data" to explain how the pandemic began were still missing. The agency recently shuttered a new phase of its scientific investigation over a lack of cooperation from the Chinese government.

Many experts have focused on pointing out vulnerabilities that persist and a lack of meaningful action to reduce the risk of potential future outbreaks — whether from natural origin or a lab leak. 

– Catherine Herridge contributed reporting.

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