should focus on connecting the concepts learned in the 2 modules and readings to your experiences in everyday life (e.g., conversations with family and friends or things you see/read/hear in the news, popular culture, or other media). You should display evidence of critical thinking (e.g., What did the experience make you think about with regards to topics covered?) and should bring in specific concepts or theories presented in the course content. You should not quote the original materials, or summarize the materials, rather you should write in a reflective manner and include in text citations to identify which materials you are referring to as well.
[ 1 ]
Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins
Scope Note: This assessment responds to the President’s request that the Intelligence Community (IC) update its previous judgments
on the origins of COVID-19. It also identifies areas for possible additional research. Annexes include a lexicon, additional details on
methodology, and comments from outside experts. This assessment is based on information through August 2021.
The IC assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans
through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of
COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In addition, the IC was able to reach broad
agreement on several other key issues. We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most
agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two
agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses
China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.
After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC remains divided on the
most likely origin of COVID-19. All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an
infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.
Four IC elements and the National Intelligence Council assess with low confidence that the initial SARS-CoV-2
infection was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus—a
virus that probably would be more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2. These analysts give weight to
China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge, the numerous vectors for natural exposure, and other factors.
One IC element assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most
likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal
handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These analysts give weight to the inherently risky
nature of work on coronaviruses.
Analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional
information, with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the
hypotheses as equally likely.
Variations in analytic views largely stem from differences in how agencies weigh intelligence reporting and
scientific publications and intelligence and scientific gaps.
The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new
information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine
that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged.
The IC—and the global scientific community—lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of
epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. If we obtain information on the earliest cases that
identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses.
[ 2 ]
China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19.
Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other
countries, including the United States. These actions reflect, in part, China’s government’s own uncertainty about
where an investigation could lead as well as its frustration the international community is using the issue to exert
political pressure on China.
[ 3 ]
[ 4 ]
The IC has prepared several assessments examining the
origins of COVID-19. Analysts have focused on whether
SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19, was
genetically engineered—particularly as a biological
weapon—was transmitted to humans naturally or
transmitted due to a laboratory-associated incident,
perhaps during sampling or experimentation. China’s
reaction to and handling of the pandemic have given
analysts insights into these issues, but Beijing’s actions
have also impeded the global scientific community and
our ability to confidently determine how the virus first
SARS-CoV-2 Probably Not a
The IC assesses China did not develop SARS-CoV-2 as a
We remain skeptical of allegations that SARS-CoV-2
was a biological weapon because they are supported
by scientifically invalid claims, their proponents do
not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of
Virology (WIV), or their proponents are suspected of
spreading disinformation. [See appendix B.]
Most Analysts Assess SARS-CoV-2 Not
Most IC analysts assess with low confidence that SARS-
CoV-2 was not genetically engineered. Their assessment
is based on technical analysis of SARS-CoV-2 and the
IC’s growing understanding of traits and the potential for
recombination in other coronaviruses. Two agencies
believe there is not sufficient evidence to make an
assessment either way.
As of August 2021, we still have not observed
genetic signatures in SARS-CoV-2 that would be
diagnostic of genetic engineering, according to the
IC’s understanding of the virus. Similarly, we have
not identified any existing coronavirus strains that
could have plausibly served as a backbone if
SARS-CoV-2 had been genetically engineered.
Our growing understanding of the similarities of
SARS-CoV-2 to other coronaviruses in nature and
the ability of betacoronaviruses—the genus to which
SARS-CoV-2 belongs—to naturally recombine
suggests SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically
engineered. For instance, academic literature has
noted that in some instances betacoronaviruses have
recombined with other viruses in nature and that
furin cleavage sites (FCS)—a region in the spike
protein that enhances infection—have been
identified in naturally occurring coronaviruses in the
same genetic location as the FCS in SARS-CoV-2.
This suggests that SARS-CoV-2 or a progenitor virus
could have acquired its FCS through natural
recombination with another virus.
IC analysts do not have higher confidence that SARS-
CoV-2 was not genetically engineered because some
genetic engineering techniques can make modifications
difficult to identify and we have gaps in our knowledge of
naturally occurring coronaviruses.
Some genetic engineering techniques may make
genetically modified viruses indistinguishable from
natural viruses, according to academic journal
articles. For instance, a 2017 dissertation by a
WIV student showed that reverse genetic cloning
techniques—which are standard techniques used in
advanced molecular laboratories—left no trace of
genetic modification of SARS-like coronaviruses.
It will be difficult to increase our confidence that
the distinguishing features in SARS-CoV-2
emerged naturally without a better understanding
of the diversity of coronaviruses in nature and how
often recombination occurs during co-infection of
multiple coronaviruses within a particular host.
For example, academic literature has indicated that
a FCS had previously been inserted into
SARS-CoV-1, the causative agent of SARS,
complicating differentiation of how such a feature
may have appeared.
[ 5 ]
The WIV previously created chimeras, or
combinations, of SARS-like coronaviruses, but
this information does not provide insight into
whether SARS-CoV-2 was genetically engineered
by the WIV.
No IC analysts assess that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of
laboratory adaptation, although some analysts do not
have enough information to make this determination.
Repeated passage of a closely related virus through
animals or cell culture—which we consider laboratory
adaptation and not genetic engineering—could result in
some features of SARS-CoV-2, according to publicly
available information. However, it probably would take
years of laboratory adaptation using the appropriate cell
types and a virus that is more closely related to SARS-
CoV-2 than ones currently known to generate the number
of mutations separating SARS-CoV-2 from any known
coronavirus strains, judging from scientific journal
articles. Such processes would require differentiation and
maintenance of primary cells and the development of
appropriate animal models.
[ 6 ]
China’s Lack of Foreknowledge
The IC assesses China’s officials probably did not have
foreknowledge that SARS-CoV-2 existed before WIV
researchers isolated it after public recognition of the virus
in the general population. Accordingly, if the pandemic
originated from a laboratory-associated incident, they
probably were unaware in the initial months that such an
incident had occurred.
Early in the pandemic, the WIV identified that a
new virus was responsible for the outbreak in
Wuhan. It is therefore assessed that WIV
researchers pivoted to COVID-19-related work to
address the outbreak and characterize the virus.
These activities suggest that WIV personnel were
unaware of the existence of SARS-CoV-2 until the
outbreak was underway.
Two Plausible Hypotheses of
IC analysts assess that a natural origin and a laboratory-
associated incident are both plausible hypotheses for
how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans. Analysts,
however, disagree on which is more likely, or whether
an assessment can be made at all, given the lack of
diagnosticity of the available information. Most
agencies are unable to make higher than low confidence
assessments for these reasons, and confidence levels are
tempered by plausible arguments for the opposing
hypothesis. For these hypotheses, IC analysts consider
an exposure that occurs during animal sampling activity
that supports biological research to be a laboratory-
associated incident and not natural contact. What
follows is a look at the cases that can be made for these
The Case for the Natural Origin Hypothesis
Some IC analysts assess with low confidence that the
first human COVID-19 infection most likely was caused
by natural exposure to an animal that carried SARS-
CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus—a virus that would
likely be more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2.
Four IC elements, the National Intelligence Council,
and some analysts at elements that are unable to
coalesce around either explanation are among this
group. Analysts at these agencies give weight to China’s
officials' lack of foreknowledge and highlight the
precedent of past novel infectious disease outbreaks
having zoonotic origins, the wide diversity of animals
that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and the
range of scenarios—to include animal trafficking,
farming, sale, and rescue—in China that enable zoonotic
transmission. Although no confirmed animal source of
SARS-CoV-2 has been identified, to include a reservoir or
intermediate species, analysts that assess the pandemic
was due to natural causes note that in many previous
zoonotic outbreaks, the identification of animal sources
has taken years, and in some cases, animal sources have
not been identified.
These analysts assess that WIV’s activities in early
2020 related to SARS-CoV-2 are a strong indicator
that the WIV lacked foreknowledge of the virus.
They also see the potential that a laboratory worker
inadvertently was infected while collecting
unknown animal specimens to be less likely than
an infection occurring through numerous hunters,
farmers, merchants, and others who have frequent,
natural contact with animals.
Given China’s poor public health infrastructure
and the potential for asymptomatic infection,
some analysts that lean towards a natural origin
argue that China’s infectious disease surveillance
system would not have been able to detect the
SARS-CoV-2 exposure as quickly as a suspected
exposure in a laboratory setting.
History of Zoonotic Pathogen Emergence,
Conditions in China Ripe for Zoonotic Spillover
Analysts that find the natural zoonotic spillover
hypothesis the most likely explanation for the pandemic
also note the wide diversity of animals that are
susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, range of
scenarios—to include animal trafficking, farming, sale,
and rescue—in China that would enable zoonotic
[ 7 ]
transmission, and precedent of novel human infectious
disease outbreaks originating from zoonotic
transmission. Previous human coronavirus outbreaks, to
include SARS-CoV-1 and Middle East Respiratory
Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), occurred naturally
and were linked to animal reservoirs with zoonotic
transmission to humans, according to scientific literature.
Extensive wildlife and livestock farming, wildlife
trafficking, and live animal markets in China and
historically lax government regulation—and even
promotion—of these activities increase the
probability that initial transmission occurred along
one of these routes.
Academic literature has revealed Wuhan markets
sold live mammals and dozens of species—including
raccoon dogs, masked palm civets, and a variety of
other mammals, birds, and reptiles—often in poor
conditions where viruses can jump among species,
facilitating recombination events and the acquisition
of novel mutations. SARS-CoV-2 can infect a range
of mammals, including cats, dogs, pangolins, minks,
raccoon dogs, and a variety of wild and domestic
animals, according to academic literature.
Wider Hubei Province has extensive farming and
breeding of animals that are susceptible to
SARS-CoV-2, including minks and raccoon dogs.
[ 8 ]
These analysts note that there is a precedent for viral
vectors to travel long distances in China and cause
infection elsewhere because of transportation and trade
nodes, thereby widening and complicating the search for
the specific zoonotic spillover incident. For instance, the
bat coronavirus that is currently the closest known
relative to the original SARS-CoV-1 was identified in
Yunnan Province, even though the first SARS outbreak
detected in humans occurred in Guangdong Province,
hundreds of kilometers away.
The Case for the Laboratory-Associated
One IC element assesses with moderate confidence that
COVID-19 most likely resulted from a laboratory-
associated incident involving WIV or other
researchers—either through exposure to the virus during
experiments or through sampling. Some analysts at
elements that are unable to coalesce around either
explanation also assess a laboratory origin with low
confidence. These analysts place emphasis on academic
articles authored by WIV employees indicating that WIV
scientists conducted research on other coronaviruses
under what these analysts consider to be inadequate
biosafety conditions that could have led to opportunities
for a laboratory-associated incident. These analysts also
take into account SARS-CoV-2’s genetic epidemiology
and that the initial recorded COVID-19 clusters occurred
only in Wuhan—and that WIV researchers who
conducted sampling activity throughout China provided
a node for the virus to enter the city.
WIV Research Includes Work With Animals That
Carry Relatives of SARS-CoV-2
The analysts that find the laboratory-associated origin
theory most likely assess that WIV researchers’ inherently
risky work with coronaviruses provided numerous
opportunities for them to unwittingly become infected
with SARS-CoV-2. Although the IC has no indications
that WIV research involved SARS-CoV-2 or a close
progenitor virus, these analysts note that it is plausible
that researchers may have unwittingly exposed
themselves to the virus without sequencing it during
experiments or sampling activities, possibly resulting in
asymptomatic or mild infection. Academic literature
indicates that WIV researchers conducted research with
bat coronaviruses or collected samples from species that
are known to carry close relatives of SARS-CoV-2.
Based on currently available information, the closest
known relatives to SARS-CoV-2 in bats have been
identified in Yunnan Province, and researchers
bringing samples to laboratories provide a plausible
link between these habitats and the city.
These analysts also note that China’s investigations
into the pandemic’s origin might not uncover
evidence of a laboratory-associated incident if it
involved only a small number of researchers who
did not acknowledge or have knowledge of a
Biosafety Conditions for Specific Work Could
Have Led to an Incident
The analysts that assess COVID-19 most likely
originated from a laboratory-associated incident also
place emphasis on information suggesting researchers in
China used biosafety practices that increased the risk of
exposure to viruses. Academic publications suggest that
WIV researchers did not use adequate biosafety
precautions at least some of the time, increasing the risk
of a laboratory-associated incident.
WIV Illnesses in Fall 2019 Not Diagnostic
The IC assesses that information indicating that
several WIV researchers reported symptoms
consistent with COVID-19 in autumn 2019 is not
diagnostic of the pandemic’s origins. Even if
confirmed, hospital admission alone would not be
diagnostic of COVID-19 infection.
[ 9 ]
The Role of the Huanan Seafood
Some scientists and China’s public health officials
have shifted their view on the role of the Huanan
Seafood Wholesale Market in the pandemic since
early 2020. Some now view the market as a
potential site of community spread rather than
where the initial human infection may have occurred.
On January 1, 2020, China’s security
authorities shut down the market after several
workers fell ill in late December 2019. China
focused early source tracing on the market and
Hubei Province; association with the market
was included as part of the early case definition.
In January 2020, a scientific article that
described clinical features of initial
COVID-19 infections in China found that
some COVID-19 patients did not have any
known association with the market.
Furthermore, there continues to be conflicting
data with some academic articles and preprints
noting that phylogenetic analysis of the
available data on the earliest cases suggests
that the progenitor virus may not have
originated from the market.
China’s Transparency Key to Determining
The IC judges that closing persistent information gaps on
the origins of COVID-19 is very likely to require greater
transparency and collaboration from Beijing. The
scientific community lacks technical data on a reservoir
species, possible intermediate species, and closer
relatives to SARS-CoV-2.
Data and Samples From Initial Cases: The global
scientific community does not know exactly where,
when, or how the first human infection with
SARS-CoV-2 occurred. It lacks a complete picture of
the initial cases in Wuhan—or potentially elsewhere in
China—that would allow it to better understand
potential sources of infection or conduct phylogenetic
analysis that would help validate both hypotheses.
Information That Would Confirm Natural Outbreak:
Searching for a natural reservoir or potential
intermediate host requires collecting, isolating, and
sequencing viruses from samples taken from potential
host species and environments to search for viruses
related to SARS-CoV-2, endeavors that require
international collaboration, resources, and time.
Information that the earliest confirmed COVID-19
cases were in individuals or families who spent
time in rural regions or who were involved in
animal trade or environments that facilitate close
human-to-animal interactions could indicate that
the virus was circulating within an animal reservoir
and a zoonotic spillover event caused the first
COVID-19 case in humans.
However, some transmission pathways are
fleeting, meaning an animal acquires a virus and
evidence of infection vanishes, particularly if the
animals are reared and harvested for agricultural
or commercial purposes.
Information That Would Confirm Laboratory-
Associated Incident: China’s coronavirus research or
related information from origins investigations by
Beijing or international organizations could provide
clear indications of a laboratory-associated incident or at
least yield some new insights.
[ 10 ]
WIV’s Publicly Available
IC analysts are examining published research from
China for any indicators that would inform our
understanding of COVID-19’s origins. The WIV
and other research groups in China published
coronavirus articles in 2020 and 2021, including the
discovery of the closest known relative of
SARS-CoV-2, but at least some relevant data on
coronaviruses of interest has either been unavailable
or has not been published.
Although the WIV described the sampling trip to
the mineshaft in Mojiang in Yunnan Province
where it collected RaTG13 in 2016, it did not
explicitly state that RaTG13 was collected from
that mine until 2020. Similarly, the WIV collected
eight other coronaviruses from the same mine in
2015 that it did not fully disclose until 2021. In
some of these instances, however, the WIV has
described unpublished work in webinars and
interviews prior to publishing.
China Likely To Impede Investigation
The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more
definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless
new information allows them to determine the specific
pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to
determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling