US intelligence agencies are searching for a treasure trove of genetic data that could be important Uncovering the origins of the coronavirus As soon as they can understand it.
This vast catalog of information contains genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Some officials believe can be the source of covid-19 outbreak, several people familiar with the matter told CNN.
It is unclear how or when US intelligence agencies gained access to the information, but the machines involved in creating and processing such genetic data from the virus are typically connected to external cloud-based servers – allowing their hacks. The possibility is left open, the sources said.
Still, translating this mountain of raw data into usable information—which is only part of the intelligence community—is 90-day push It presents a range of challenges, including using enough computing power to process it all – to uncover the origins of the pandemic. To do this, intelligence agencies are relying on the supercomputers of the Department of Energy’s National Labs, a collection of 17 elite government research institutions.
There is also a manpower issue. Not only do intelligence agencies need government scientists skilled enough to interpret complex genetic sequencing data and who have the appropriate security clearances, they also need to speak Mandarin, as the information is written in Chinese with a specialized vocabulary. She goes.
“Apparently there are scientists who have got (security) clearance,” a source familiar with the intelligence told CNN. “But the Mandarin speakers who are cleared? That’s a very small pool. And not just any scientists, but those who are experts in bio? So you can see how it quickly gets difficult.”
Officials conducting a 90-day review hope this information will help answer questions about how the virus is transmitted. jumped from animals to humans. Multiple sources told CNN that unraveling that mystery is needed to ultimately determine whether Covid-19 leaked from the laboratory or was transmitted from wild animals to humans.
Investigators, both inside and outside the government, have long sought genetic data from 22,000 virus samples that were being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That data was removed from the Internet by Chinese authorities in September 2019, and China Since refused to turn This and the World Health Organization and the U.S. To other raw data on initial coronavirus cases.
The question for investigators is whether WIV or other laboratories in China have virus samples or other relevant information that could help them trace the evolutionary history of the coronavirus.
Two scientists who study coronaviruses told CNN they suspect that a tranche of 22,000 samples or some other WIV database contains genetic data that scientists don’t already know.
“basically [a 2020 research paper published in Nature], WIV talks about all the sequences they’ve made up to a certain point in time – this is what most scientific virologists believe, that’s what they have in common,” said Dr. Robert Gary, a virologist at Tulane University School of Medicine. he said.
A source familiar with the US investigation would neither confirm nor deny that any data related to those 22,000 samples US intelligence agencies are currently analyzing.
Sources familiar with the effort say filling in the missing genetic link will not be enough to definitively prove that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan or first emerged naturally. Officials will still need to piece together other pertinent clues to determine the true origins of the pandemic.
But it is an important puzzle piece that Biden Administration Giving priority.
“The most prized technical data in this context are genetic sequences, database entries and relevant information about the origin of the samples and the time and context in which they were acquired – information people will use to place them in a narrative of the origins of SARS.” Covid,” a source familiar with the investigation told CNN.
For now, senior intelligence officials still say they are actually divided between two prevailing theories on the origins of the pandemic, or some combination of both scenarios. CNN Reported That last month senior officials in the Biden administration overseeing the 90-day review now believe the theory that the virus accidentally escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan is at least as credible as the possibility that it spread in the wild. emerged naturally – a dramatic change from a year ago, when Democrats publicly underestimated the so-called laboratory leak theory.
Multiple sources told CNN that in the unlikely unexpected absence of new information, officials do not expect to uncover a “smoking gun” — like intercepted communications, for example — that would provide definitive evidence for either theory. The Biden administration’s 90-day push is based on the expectation that science, not intelligence, will happen.
Intelligence officials are tasked with addressing several “scientific knowledge gaps” about the evolution of the virus, according to archive guidance governing the 90-day push, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on June 11, more than a dozen distributed to agencies. Retrieved by CNN.
The memo instructs the intelligence community to “expand its collection” and consider the data already in its possession to identify the initial host of the coronavirus and any species that it considers to be adaptable to humans. could pass on – or “to find as any ancestor” viruses and/or viruses that may serve as backbones for genetic engineering purposes.”
But former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told CNN that the US intelligence community already had enough archives on the topic of the origins of Covid.
“Obviously, the more, the better. But we’ve gained extraordinary insight into the subject over several months, much more than just being declassified. Pretending we haven’t done political theater and a classic example of a statesman who is trying to buy time by using IC as a scapegoat,” he told CNN in a statement.
That’s where the genomic data from the Wuhan lab can come in.
For example, the genetic code of a given virus is the signature that allows scientists to tell the difference between delta and beta variants of the coronavirus. It may also provide clues about how the virus has adapted or mutated over time, including whether it shows signs of human manipulation – a type of genetic history.
Many scientists believe that the most likely scenario is that the virus jumped naturally from animals to humans. But despite testing thousands of animals, researchers still haven’t identified the intermediate host through which the virus adapted to humans.
But some researchers, intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers believe that WIV researchers may have genetically altered a virus in the laboratory, using a controversial type of research called “gain of function.” , which can infect infected researchers who spread it in their community. .
It is also plausible that the initial infection occurred naturally outside the laboratory, perhaps when a scientist was collecting a sample from a wild animal, and that scientist inadvertently spread the virus when he returned to the laboratory with the samples, multiple sources said. Wisdom explained.
A source familiar with the investigation said, “If it was the latter, it would have been brought to a laboratory for study because someone had become ill…
Understanding which virus researchers were working at WIV could provide important evidence for either of these theories. That’s one reason investigators on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have focused on the database that was taken offline in 2019.
But it can’t prove anything with certainty, say sources familiar with the intelligence. Even if scientists in the intelligence community are able to use data from the laboratory to piece together a complete genetic history that shows how the virus mutates, they may not have enough information about it. That’s how it was controlled with high level by Chinese lab. The level of confidence that it leaked.
“Despite the full history of the variants, [officials might] There is a lack of relevant information to understand this in a narrative way,” explained a source familiar with the investigation.
“Even a complete sequence history is difficult to obtain. And doesn’t really tell us anything about the origins of the pandemic without context,” said this person.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have jumped into the uncertainty with their own report, which claimed “evidence suggests” the coronavirus was “accidentally” released from a laboratory in Wuhan in 2019 – a A claim that goes far beyond the current view of the intelligence community. Case.
It is possible that at the end of Biden’s 90-day push, the intelligence community may not have reached what is known as a “high-confidence” assessment of the origins of the pandemic. Administration officials previously suggested to CNN that it was possible a second review could be ordered at the end of 90 days.
Earlier this week a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees sent a letter urging the administration to continue to prioritize hunting until such a decision is made to prevent future pandemics. .
But lawmakers also noted a related focus for intelligence officials probing the origins of the pandemic: China’s “efforts to hide the severity and scope of the SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We also believe that the investigation should address the PRC’s efforts to prevent international inquiries into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and other actions PRC authorities have taken to obscure the nature of the virus and its transmission.” ,” the MPs said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in the House balked at the theory that the virus escaped from a lab. In a report released Monday by Texas Representative Michael McCaul, GOP lawmakers have claimed “the overwhelming amount of evidence suggests” that the coronavirus was “accidentally” released from a laboratory in Wuhan in 2019.
Intelligence officials say it is too early to say.