The US intelligence community has released an assessment concluding that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 originated in China and said an investigation is underway to determine whether the virus had escaped from the complex of laboratories in Wuhan.
"The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said, using a common initialism for the US intelligence community.
For many years, a team of scientists from Wuhan was involved in the high-stakes search for bats and the strange diseases they harbor. They collected samples and returned to their state-of-the-art laboratory in central China, containing pathogens associated with diseases that are deadly in humans, The Washington Post reported.
The highlights of the Wuhan researchers' work on bat viruses have been mentioned in more than 40 published studies and academic papers that describe a sprawling, ambitious effort to document the connection between bats and recent disease outbreaks in China.
While intelligence analysts and many scientists see the lab-as-origin theory as technically possible, no direct evidence has emerged suggesting that coronavirus escaped from Wuhan's research facilities. The virus has so far has infected more than 3.2 million people and killed at least 233,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Chinese officials and scientists have denied any connection between the coronavirus pandemic and its showcase research centre, which includes a high-security facility known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as per The Washington Post.
"Even if a lab is mechanically safe, you cannot rule out human error," said Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington non-profit group, and author of a comprehensive study of lab mishaps.
"Accidents happen, and more than 70 per cent of the time it's due to the humans involved," Klotz added.
While no comparable records are available for Chinese labs, a Chinese scientific paper last year described widespread systemic deficiencies with training and monitoring of high-security laboratories where disease-causing pathogens are studied.
"Maintenance cost is generally neglected and several high-level BSLs (biological safety level labs) have insufficient operating funds for routine, yet vital processes," said the paper by Yuan Zhiming, a chief scientist at Wuhan, published in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity. Most laboratories "lack specialised biosafety managers and engineers," he wrote.