Apr 17, 2023 - Health

Senate COVID origins report details lab leak theory

Illustration of a pattern of covid particles and positive signs turning into each other.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic appeared to originate from a laboratory accident, based on biosafety issues in the epicenter in Wuhan, China, and factors observed in the nature and early spread of the virus, according to a 302-page Senate report obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The detailed summary of an investigation by the Republican leadership of the Senate health committee doesn't concretely settle the question of how the pandemic began but evaluates the two leading theories, transfer from wild animals or an accident at a Chinese government lab, and concludes the latter is stronger.

Details: The report is the result of former Sen. Richard Burr's investigation into the origins of the pandemic as the minority leader of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

  • An abbreviated version of the report was publicly released last year.
  • "Since the team did not complete their work before Sen. Burr left office this became a product without a home," said a a former senior Republican aide who worked on the report and provided it to Axios.
  • "Former Sen. Burr has not reviewed this document and it didn’t go through the same vetting process our executive summary document released last year did, but this is worth releasing, in my view, and reflects the quality of work that was done by the team."

What they found: "The preponderance of information affirms the plausibility of a research-related incident that was likely unintentional resulting from failures of biosafety containment during vaccine-related research," the extended report concludes.

  • The report describes this evidence as "circumstantial." Both leading theories are missing key supporting evidence, which may never become available or would likely be obtained through intelligence gathering.
  • Burr, in a statement, said the report is "credible and worthy of inclusion in the international effort to determine how the pandemic started so that steps can be taken to prevent, or mitigate against, future pandemics."

The big picture: The pandemic's origins have divided the scientific and intelligence communities and have become the source of fierce political debate.

  • Some scientists have argued that evidence collected from a Wuhan market that sold live animals supports the theory that the virus spilled over from animals at the site.
  • There is no known evidence of the virus having circulated in an intermediary host, although direct bat-t0-human transmission can't be ruled out. But there's also no public evidence of an originator virus being held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which did research on bat coronaviruses.
  • Experts say investigations into the pandemic's origins have been hampered by a lack of coordination from China.
  • FBI Director Christopher Wray said in February the pandemic "most likely" resulted from a potential lab leak in Wuhan, even while U.S. intelligence agencies remained divided on the cause, with none having reached a conclusion with a high degree of confidence.

Between the lines: The report's case for a lab accident being the cause relies on several lines of evidence.

  • It argues that scientists haven't found any naturally occurring viruses with the same composition of the coronavirus, and that there's evidence the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first known cases connected to the wet market were reported.
  • It also argues that it appears Chinese researchers began development of at least two COVID vaccines in November 2019, including at the WIV, which "means SARS-CoV-2 would have been present at the WIV before the known outbreak of the pandemic."
  • It also documents numerous instances of lab safety concerns throughout 2019, including around the time when the virus may have first appeared.

What they're saying: Robert Kadlec, the lead author of the report and a former HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response during the Trump administration, said that there's historical context — including the societal impact of the SARS pandemic — that explains China's motivation to do the high-risk coronavirus research that the report concludes most likely caused the pandemic.

  • “I think there is a really reasonable logic to what the Chinese might be doing with regard to SARS coronavirus vaccines because they saw the impact SARS had on their country," Kadlec told Axios.
  • “They had more than enough reason — as we did post 9/11 — to try to do things to protect ourselves.”

Read the executive summary:

Read the full report:

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