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Energy Dept. says with 'low confidence' that lab leak may be origin of COVID-19

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Energy is concluding that COVID-19 might have been leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, but there are caveats. The Wall Street Journal's Michael Gordon broke this story. So before we get to the Department of Energy report, let's talk about why it's taken so long and been so challenging to get to the bottom of where COVID-19 came from.

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, a big problem is the Chinese aren't cooperating. They're not being transparent. They haven't shared data from their laboratories in Wuhan, which is the center of coronavirus research, nor did they fully cooperate with the World Health Organization when it sent a team there to inspect it and sort of sent the team back. So you're trying to decipher a mystery without the cooperation of the nation where the virus emerged. And that's proving to be a very difficult challenge for the U.S. intelligence community.

FADEL: Now, the Energy Department says that it's finding that COVID might have leaked from a laboratory. It was made with, quote, "low confidence." So is this report fully conclusive? What does this mean?

GORDON: Well, let's step back a bit. I mean what happened was President Biden, in May of 2021, ordered a investigation into the origins of COVID by the intelligence community. And there were a number of different agencies involved in this - the CIA, the DIA, Energy, FBI and the like. And they came forth with a report that was pretty much of a split decision. And in this story that I broke with my colleague Warren Strobel, we determined that the FBI was an agency that had assessed it a leak from the lab with moderate confidence. There were four other agencies that said it probably arose naturally from an animal with low confidence. And at that time, the Energy Department was agnostic. It didn't have a position one way or the other.

What's happened is they've done an update to this report, and the Energy Department's position has shifted. It's gone from saying, well, we don't know to, we think it's most likely it did come from a lab, though with low confidence. So they've now aligned with the FBI in this intelligence community assessment that was provided to the White House last month but not acknowledged publicly.

FADEL: So different findings by different agencies. Why are multiple agencies conducting separate investigations like this?

GORDON: Well, the intelligence community consists of 18 different agencies...

FADEL: Yeah.

GORDON: ...And eight of them were involved in this because they had the requisite expertise. So it was intended to be a whole of community effort. The reason the FBI and the Energy Department are significant is the FBI - it's not just a bunch of gumshoes. They have scientists. They have a lab at Fort Detrick, which does bio forensic research. And the Energy Department oversees the national laboratories, like Lawrence Livermore, which invented fusion. They have scientists under their command. And so they're able to look at this more so than other agencies from a scientific perspective.

FADEL: And if China's not cooperating, then where is the Department of Energy getting its information?

GORDON: Well, they won't say. I mean, they won't say what the intelligence information is. And we know it's not conclusive. We know it's - they haven't established a cataclysmic episode and linked it directly to the outbreak in Wuhan. But the alternative theory that it leapt from an animal - well, in the past three years, they've never found a host animal. So the absence of evidence for the alternative theory and the nature of the research in Wuhan is what's pointing to this conclusion.

FADEL: Michael Gordon is a national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Michael, thanks so much.

GORDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.