We may never know where COVID originated. Here's why

A classified intelligence report from the U.S. Department of Energy that concluded the COVID-19 pandemic likely originated from a laboratory leak may give a boost to those who support the theory, but scientists say it likely won't end the debate over the origin of the virus, and some say a definitive answer may never be discovered.

Lack of consensus on virus origin will be considered one of 'great failures of the pandemic,' professor says

Security personnel keep watch outside Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 3, 2021.
Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021. A recent report from the U.S. Energy Department concluding the COVID-19 virus likely originated from a laboratory leak may give a boost to those who support the theory, but it's unlikely to end the debate over the origin of the virus. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A classified intelligence report from the U.S. Department of Energy that concluded the COVID-19 pandemic likely originated from a laboratory leak may give a boost to those who support the theory, but scientists say it certainly won't end the debate over the origin of the virus.

Indeed, some say a definitive answer may never be found.

"There are many cold criminal cases that never get solved, despite intense efforts to do so because they don't have sufficient evidence as to what happened. I think you have a very similar situation here," said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"We're never really going to know." 

'Great failures of the pandemic'

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and director of the university's World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law agreed that it's very unlikely the origin will ever be solved.

"I think historians will look back and they will think of it as one of the great failures of the pandemic," he said.

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An undated transmission electron micrograph shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, also known as the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient. (NIAID Integrated Research Facility/Reuters)

Many scientists believe the virus had a natural origin, what's known as a zoonotic or natural spillover, meaning the virus came from animals, mutated and jumped into people — as has happened with viruses in the past.

The lab-leak theory proposes that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which works with coronaviruses, may have been studying or even modifying such viruses to better understand them, when one may have accidentally escaped the lab.

Though it was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the notion of a lab leak is now considered by some in the scientific community an avenue at least worth exploring. 

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a report noting that the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees a national network of labs, had concluded with "low confidence" that the pandemic began as a result of a lab leak.

WATCH | FBI believes lab incident responsible for coronavirus pandemic, director says: 

FBI director's comments on origins of COVID renews debate

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Comments by the director of the FBI that a leak from a Chinese lab may have led to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a renewed debate. But scientists point out there still isn't any conclusive evidence as to how the pandemic started.

The Wall Street Journal said the classified report was based on new intelligence.

Past intelligence reports indicate that a low confidence level generally means that the information used in the analysis is "scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information" and could also mean that the intelligence community has significant concerns or problems with the information sources.

No consensus on origin

John Kirby, the spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said Monday that there is currently no consensus in the U.S. government about how exactly the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Fox News Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the origin of the virus was "most likely" a result of a laboratory incident in Wuhan, a position the agency reaffirmed in a tweet on the same day.

But Gostin, of Georgetown University, said the new report from the Wall Street Journal does little to clear up the debate, as the Department of Energy has so far not said how it came to its conclusions about the coronavirus originating from a lab leak.

"They haven't revealed any shred of scientific or other evidence that would support its theory," Gostin said. "So I don't know how anybody with that set of conclusions can come up with the idea that this validates in any way that theory."

To determine whether the virus came from the lab, Osterholm says investigators would have had to document that the actual virus was in the lab, find evidence that people who worked in the lab were testing positive for the virus and that they had been in the community after being inside the lab.

Without that information, he said, "you can never come back and say that this is what happened there."

As for evidence of a natural spillover, researchers would have had to find evidence of the virus among the animal population in the Wuhan wildlife market, which Osterholm says hasn't been done.

"Those two [scenarios] just leave unanswered questions that we're never going to answer," he said. 

In this Feb. 23, 2017, file photo, Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province.
Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 23, 2017, in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (The Associated Press)

As well, Gostin said, trying to determine an origin when so much time has elapsed since the initial spread may be too challenging.

"The more time that has elapsed, the harder it is to retrace the steps of origination," he said.

Gostin also noted that the Chinese government, which has rejected the idea of COVID-19 originating from a lab leak, has blocked World Health Organization investigators and other independent investigation teams from accessing the laboratory, the animal market or the health and hospital system in Wuhan.

'Impossible to resolve this controversy'

"And so without being able to be on the ground, look at the records, do genetic sampling, it's going to be extraordinarily impossible to resolve this controversy."

In March, 2021, a team of WHO investigators released a report that determined that it was "likely to very likely" that the coronavirus had a zoonotic source, meaning it was transmitted to humans by animals. They also concluded that the idea that a laboratory incident was the source was "extremely unlikely."

Marion Koopmans, right, and Peter Ben Embarek, centre, of the World Health Organization team say farewell to their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannian, left, after a WHO-China joint media conference held at the end of a WHO mission in Wuhan, China in February 2021. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

But that report was subsequently criticized by the U.S., Canada, members of the scientific community and other governments due to the lack of access granted to the investigators.

Months later, WHO announced it had formed a new advisory group — the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). Their preliminary report released in June 2022 said that further research is needed to determine how COVID-19 first began, including a more detailed analysis of the possibility that it was a laboratory leak.

However, William Schaffner, medical director of the Maryland-based National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said that Chinese authorities were not completely forthcoming or transparent when the virus initially began to spread, and it's unlikely they will be transparent in the future. 

"And so I think we are where we are … we're stuck," he said. "I don't think we'll ever have a definitive answer that satisfies everyone."

LISTEN | This scientist says the 'lab leak' hypothesis shouldn't be dismissed: 


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press