Lab-Leak Intelligence Reports are not scientific conclusions

Intelligence reports have a turbulent history. They have recently been at the center of the debate about the origin of the pandemic virus. With a change of heart at the Department of Energy and a mere reiteration of the position at the FBI, those arguing that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are pushing their case. Most agencies still prefer the natural route or say they don’t know.

This latest twist comes thanks to an update to a 90-day Secret Service review President Biden received in 2021. The review weighed whether the virus had jumped from experiments at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the “lab leak” theory, or from a nearby animal market in the city where the outbreak first started, the “natural one.” origin”.

We now know that the DOE, along with the National Intelligence Council, was previously one of four agencies to rate “low confidence” that the natural route was more likely. The department’s reversal on this issue has led the DOE to support a laboratory origin, again with “low confidence”. Meanwhile, the FBI’s statement reveals that it was the only agency from the review’s unclassified summary that believed with “moderate confidence” that a lab leak was likely — unlike the others, who were neutral or leaned in the opposite direction .

An intelligence rating is not a scientific conclusion. They are different beasts. The summary itself notes that different agencies give different weights to intelligence reports and scientific publications. The important factor for intelligence ratings is the accuracy of the sources, while scientific conclusions depend on data and the coherence of reasoning supporting the data. However, data from a scientist who has a history of unreliability will carry less weight in scientific conclusions, and intelligence analysts will view fanciful stories from an otherwise reliable informant with skepticism. The scientific data is available to the public, as opposed to the reporting underlying the intelligence assessments.

Scientists share information widely, but intelligence experts prefer to keep theirs to themselves. We don’t know if new information changed the DOE’s position or what that new information might be. The recent explanation for the change in DOE remains unspecific. Going from one low-confidence rating to another is not a big step. The definition of low confidence is “that the credibility and/or plausibility of the information is uncertain, that the information is too fragmented or poorly supported to draw sound analytical conclusions, or that the reliability of the sources is questionable.”

In the weeks following September 11, 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were sent to NBC News New York Post and the offices of then-Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The FBI’s primary responsibility was to trace the sender of these letters. The investigation took seven years to develop a mainly circuitous case against Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist and researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. That’s seven years for a simpler investigation than that into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Ivins killed himself in 2008 just as the Justice Department was about to indict him.

Two later investigations by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council of the National Academies and the Government Accountability Office found that the FBI’s handling of samples was insufficient to support their conclusions. An independent investigation by news organizations came to the same conclusions. Solving the mystery of the anthrax letters required cutting-edge science that is not the FBI’s expertise.

But cutting-edge research is the expertise of the Department of Energy, which operates 17 national laboratories, several of which are studying SARS-CoV-2 and its origins. Intelligence experts in the national laboratories work with scientists to develop assessments. Because they are embedded in the labs, they can forge working relationships to explore mysteries of science and intelligence. As I was in charge of a similar environmental cleanup site at Los Alamos National Laboratory, an issue I was involved with in the 1990s was whether the Soviets had been conducting hydrodynamic tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, scattering metallic chunks of plutonium. Members of the intelligence department came to me and other chemists and our fellow physicists to learn how and why such tests were conducted and what clues they would leave for analysts. Eventually we found out that testing was actually done this way. A joint program with Russia and Kazakhstan has recovered 100 kilograms of plutonium that may have gone to scavengers as a result of this detective work.

Even the experts have a difficult problem determining how diseases spread to humans. We still don’t know where the Ebola virus came from in humans, and it took scientists three decades to diagnose the HIV virus, first identified in humans in the early 1980s, until a leap from wild monkeys in the 1920s years could be traced back.

Genetic markers for the possible routes of SARS-CoV-2 to humans can be examined by DNA analysis and comparison with other viruses. No definitive evidence of laboratory tampering has been presented. No links were found to known experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although China gave no details. There are gaps in the lineage of SARS-CoV-2 that need to be closed before any definitive scientific conclusion can be drawn.

An intelligence estimate, especially one developed in just 90 days, is simply not enough to determine how a virus jumped to humans. science needs more. So far, the scientific evidence points to accidental animal-to-human transmission, likely at the Wuhan animal market. The intelligence assessment continues to point in this direction – even with the reversal of the DOE – with admittedly insufficient evidence for a reliable conclusion. “Trust me” is the intelligence agent’s propensity to reason with the public and the basis for the origin of the lab leak, but a natural origin is supported by public data in scientific journals.

If there is new information or new reason to believe otherwise, public confidence would be best served if that information were disclosed.

This is an opinion and analysis article and the views expressed by the author or authors do not necessarily reflect those of Scientific American.

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