US agency assessment backing Covid lab leak theory raises more questions than answers — and backlash from China
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The US Department of Energy’s assessment that Covid-19 most likely emerged due to a laboratory accident in China has reignited fierce debate and attention on the question of how the pandemic began.
But the “low confidence” determination, made in a newly updated classified report, has raised more questions than answers, as the department has publicly provided no new evidence to back the claim. It’s also generated fierce pushback from China.
“We urge the US to respect science and facts, stop politicizing this issue, stop its intelligence-led, politics-driven origins-tracing,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Wednesday.
The Department of Energy assessment is part of a broader US effort in which intelligence agencies were asked by President Joe Biden in 2021 to examine the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
That overall assessment from the intelligence community was inconclusive, and then, as now, there has yet to be a decisive link established between the virus and a specific animal or other route – as China continues to stonewall international investigations into the origins of the virus.
Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council assessed with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans through natural exposure, while one assessed with moderate confidence that the pandemic was the result of a laboratory-related accident. Three other intelligence community elements were unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information, according to a declassified version of the 2021 report.
The majority of agencies remain undecided or lean toward the virus having a natural origin – a hypothesis also widely favored by scientists with expertize in the field. But the change from the US Department of Energy has now deepened the split in the intelligence community, especially as the director of the FBI this week commented publicly for the first time on his agency’s similar determination made with “medium confidence.”
Intelligence agencies can make assessments with either low, medium or high confidence. A low confidence assessment generally means the information obtained is not reliable enough, or is too fragmented to make a more definitive judgment.
And while the assessment and new commentary has pulled the theory back into the spotlight, neither agency has released evidence or information backing their determinations. That raises crucial questions about their basis – and shines the spotlight back on gaping, outstanding unknowns and need for further research.
Scientists largely believe the virus most likely emerged from a natural spillover from an infected animal to people, as many viruses before it, though they widely acknowledge the need for more research of all options. Many have also questioned the lack of data released to substantiate the latest claim.
Virologist Thea Fischer, who in 2021 traveled to Wuhan as part of a World Health Organization (WHO) origins probe and remains a part of ongoing WHO tracing efforts, said it was “very important” that any new assessments related to the origin of the virus are documented by evidence.
“(These are) strong accusations against a public research laboratory in China and can’t stand alone without substantial evidence,” said Fischer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.
“Hopefully they will share with the WHO soon so the evidence can be known and assessed by international health experts just as all other evidence concerning the pandemic origin.”
A senior US intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the new Department of Energy assessment, that the update to the assessment was conducted in light of new intelligence, further study of academic literature and in consultation with experts outside government.
The idea that the virus could have emerged from a lab accident became more prominent as a spotlight was turned on coronavirus research being done at local facilities, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was further enhanced amid a failure to find a “smoking gun” showing which animal could have passed the virus to people at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – the location linked to a number of early known cases – amid limitations to follow-up research.
Some experts who have been closely involved in examining existing information, however, are skeptical of the new assessment giving the theory more weight.
“Given that so much of the data we have points to a spillover event occurring at the Huanan market in late 2019 I doubt there’s anything very significant in it or new information that would change our current understanding,” said David Robertson, a professor in the University of Glasgow’s School of Infection and Immunity, who was involved in recent research with findings that supported the natural origin theory.
He noted that locations of early human cases centered on the market, positive environmental samples, and confirmation that live animals susceptible to the virus were for sale there are among evidence supporting the natural origins theory – while there’s no data supporting a lab leak.
“The extent of this evidence continually gets lost (in media discussion) … when in fact we know a lot about what happened, and arguably more than other outbreaks,” he said.
Efforts to understand how the pandemic started have been further complicated by China’s lack of transparency – especially as the origin question spiraled into another point of bitter contention within rising US-China tensions of recent years.
Beijing has blocked robust, long-term international field investigations and refused to allow a laboratory audit,which could bring clarity, and been reticent to share details and data around domestic research to uncover the cause. However, it repeatedly maintains that it has been transparent and cooperative with the WHO.
Chinese officials carefully controlled the single WHO-backed investigation it did allow on the ground in 2021, citing disease control measures to restrict visiting experts to their hotel rooms for half their trip and to prevent them from sharing meals with their Chinese counterparts – cutting off an opportunity for more informal information sharing.
Citing data protection, Beijing has also declined to allow its own investigatory measures, like testing stored blood samples from Wuhan or combing through hospital data for potential “patient zeros,” to be verified by researchers outside the country.
China has fiercely denied that the virus emerged from a lab accident, and has repeatedly tried to assert it could have arrived in the country for the initial outbreak from elsewhere – including a US laboratory, without offering any evidence supporting the claim.
But a top WHO official as recently as last month publicly called for “more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies that need to take place in China”- including studies of markets and farms that could have been involved.
“These studies need to be conducted in China and we need cooperation from our colleagues there to advance our understandings,” WHO technical lead for Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said at a media briefing.
When asked about the Department of Energy assessment by CNN, a WHO representative said the organization and its origins tracing advisory body “will keep examining all available scientific evidence that would help us advance the knowledge on the origin of SARS CoV 2 and we call on China and the scientific community to undertake necessary studies in that direction.”
“Until we have more evidence all hypotheses are still on the table,” the representative said.
CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz, Jeremy Herb and Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting.
India’s opposition vows to keep ‘raising questions about Adani group’ after spokesperson arrested
When dozens of security personnel crowded onto the runway of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport on Thursday, it was not to capture a terrorist or fleeing criminal mastermind, or even to apprehend an unruly passenger.
It was to arrest an opposition politician who had allegedly “disturbed harmony” — by misstating the Prime Minister’s middle name.
Pawan Khera, the spokesperson for the Congress party, had been on his way to his party’s national convention when he was forced off his plane and arrested by police.
His alleged crime? Disturbing communal harmony by making a jibe at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he had referred to on live TV last week as “Narendra Gautamdas Modi” in reference to embattled business magnate Gautam Adani.
Adani, seen as a close ally of Modi and one of the wealthiest people in the world, saw his net worth halved in less than two weeks last month after a report by financial research firm Hindenburg leveled allegations of stock market manipulation and fraud against the Adani Group. The Adani Group condemned the report as “baseless” and “malicious.”
Police from the state of Assam said they had deployed a team to New Delhi to arrest Khera for questioning after a case was registered on Wednesday for his “objectionable remarks about the Prime Minister.”
“[Khera] was trying to disturb the communal harmony in society, (according to) sections of the Indian Penal Code under criminal conspiracy,” Prasanta Kumar Bhuyan, Assam police spokesperson, told CNN.
But the arrest of Khera has set the stage for a dramatic showdown between India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party, which has accused the government of stiffling dissent in the world’s largest democracy of 1.3 billion people.
Scores of Congress politicians responded to the arrest by sitting on the airstrip in protest. Khera was released hours later, after India’s Supreme Court ordered him to be released on interim bail. But his brief detention set off a media frenzy in the country, dominating prime time news and headlines.
Speaking to reporters after his release on Thursday, Khera said he was “asked to deplane as if I was a terrorist.”
“This is not the only example of people’s rights and liberties being curtailed. Today it’s me, tomorrow it could be anyone,” he said.
Congress member Supriya Shrinate, who was traveling with Khera at the time of his arrest, added, “If this isn’t tyranny, then what is?”
The Congress party said in a statement that Khera’s arrest was “undemocratic,” and “arbitrary,” adding: “We vehemently oppose this dictatorial behavior.”
“This charade is not going to deter us from raising questions” about the Adani group and its alleged ties to Modi, it said.
CNN has contacted a BJP national spokesperson for a comment but has not yet had a response.
Speaking to Indian news channel NDTV late Thursday, the BJP chief minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said: “Police have all the rights to arrest (Khera).
Khera’s arrest comes weeks after the country banned a documentary from the BBC that was critical of the Prime Minister’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago. Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai earlier this month citing “irregularities and discrepancies” in the BBC’s taxes. The BBC defended its documentary and said it was complying with the tax investigation.
Days before Khera’s arrest, Sarma, the Assam chief minister, had warned there would be consequences to his remarks about Modi.
“India will not forget or forgive these horrible remarks of Congressmen,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
CNN has not yet been able to reach Khera and his lawyers.
At least two killed as militants storm Karachi police headquarters
At least two people were killed and 11 were injured after militants stormed the police headquarters in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, according to officials.
Up to 10 militants attacked the police station with hand grenades and shots were fired, an eyewitness told CNN. The Sindh provincial minister for labor, Saeed Ghani, confirmed the attack to CNN, adding the incident was ongoing.
Pakistan’s Taliban, known as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack, according to spokesman Mohammad Khorasani.
Multiple shots could be heard ringing through the area where the headquarters is located, according to footage from the scene, and eyewitnesses described hearing multiple explosions.
The injured are being treated at a hospital, and one of them is in critical condition, according to Murtaza Wahab Siddiqui, a senior leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the ruling party in Sindh province where Karachi is located.
Earlier, Edhi Ambulance Service said a police officer and a janitor died in the attack, while four police rangers were among the injured.
The attack prompted the Sindh provincial government to declare a state of emergency in Karachi, according to its spokesperson, Sharjeel Memon.
Pakistan’s Taliban have been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department since September 2010.
Pakistani authorities have yet to confirm any group’s involvement.
Rescue teams have reached the site of the attack, according to video released by Chhipa Ambulance Service, in which gunfire could be heard.
‘The darkness of not knowing disappears’: China data leak gives Uyghurs answers about missing family members
A smaller subset of this data — known as the Xinjiang Police Files — was published last May. Further examination of the files then revealed their full extent, uncovering approximately 830,000 individuals across 11,477 documents and thousands of photographs.
The police files were hacked and leaked by an anonymous individual, then obtained by Adrian Zenz, a director of China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a US-based non-profit. Zenz and his team spent months developing the search tool, which they hope will empower the Uyghur diaspora with concrete information about their relatives, after years of separation and silence.
Using the new online search tool, CNN tracked down the records for 22 individuals after trialing it among the Uyghur diaspora across three continents.
For the first time, exiled Uyghurs were able to see official Chinese documents about the fate of their relatives, including why they were detained — and in some cases how they died. On seeing the files, some described a sense of empowerment; others felt guilt that their worst fears had been confirmed.
The Chinese government has never denied the legitimacy of the files, but state-run news outlet The Global Times recently described Zenz as a “rumor monger,” and called his analysis of the files “disinformation.”
‘Tens of thousands’ detained
The new website represents the largest data set ever made publicly available on Xinjiang. It allows people to search for hundreds of thousands of individuals in the raw files, using their Chinese ID card numbers.
Most of the information is from two locations — Shufu county in Kashgar and Tekes county in Ili — where the researchers believe they have almost complete population data.
The Uyghur population of Xinjiang is around 11 million, along with around four million people from other Turkic ethnic minorities. As such, the data likely represents only the tip of the iceberg.
Zenz said “tens of thousands” of people were listed as “detained” in the documents. The youngest was aged just 15.
CNN has sent a detailed request for comment to the Chinese government about the files, and the families highlighted in this article, but has not received a response.
The leaked police records mostly cover the period between 2016 and 2018, which was the peak of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Strike Hard” campaign against terrorism in Xinjiang.
The US government and UN estimated that up to two million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were detained in a giant network of internment camps, described by the Chinese government as “vocational training centers” designed to combat extremism.
These files provide a snapshot of that timeframe, but do not reflect the current situation.
After the first set of data was published in May, the Chinese government did not respond to specific questions about the files, but the Chinese embassy in Washington DC did issue a statement claiming Xinjiang residents lived a “safe, happy and fulfilling life,” which it said provided a “powerful response to all sorts of lies and disinformation on Xinjiang.”
At a press conference in late December, Xinjiang officials also claimed that “most” of the people identified in the leaked photographs were “living a normal life,” without specifying the fate of the rest. A woman who appeared in the files also claimed that she had “never been detained,” but had graduated from “a vocational college in June 2022,” just weeks after the documents were published.
‘It haunts you every day’
Over the past four years, CNN has gathered testimonies from dozens of overseas Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, which included allegations of torture and rape inside the camp system. CNN also spoke to those abroad desperately seeking information about their loved ones.
Such information is usually incredibly hard for relatives to find. A sophisticated system of collective punishment threatens those in Xinjiang with detention if their families abroad even try to make a phone call.
“The black hole is the most terrifying thing,” Zenz said. “And that’s part of why the Chinese state creates this black hole. It’s the most terrifying thing that can be done. That you don’t even know the fate of a loved one, are they alive or dead.”
From different corners of the globe, the search tool enabled three Uyghur families to find detailed official data on their relatives for the first time.
Lives in Virginia, USA
Lives in Bergen, Norway
Marhaba Yakub Salay
Lives in Adelaide, Australia
Mamatjan Juma (49), pictured with his three brothers in 2003. They were all jailed, according to the police files. “I wish I could go back to this moment,” Juma said.
For Mamatjan Juma, who lives just south of Washington DC in Virginia, the files provided “immense” information about his family, but also confirmed his worst fears — that they were found “guilty by association” with him.
As the deputy director for the Uyghur service of US-funded news organization Radio Free Asia, Juma has been highlighting the situation in Xinjiang for 16 years. He left China for the US in 2003, after being selected for an academic fellowship with the Ford Foundation.
“They called me a wanted terrorist, to be deported back to China,” Juma said. “My relatives (are) also demonized because of me, and then (they’re) not described as human beings.”
The files show that 29 members of Juma’s immediate and extended family had been detained — and in some cases sentenced to long jail terms — due to their connections to him.
Juma learned that all three of his brothers were imprisoned, one of whom was even pictured in a police mugshot.
Mamatjan Juma, looking at his brother Eysajan’s mugshot
He described his younger brother, Eysajan Juma, as “jubilant, very gregarious,” a sociable and likable person who was loved deeply, despite making “a lot of mistakes.” But Juma could no longer see those familiar traits in his brother’s eyes.
“I saw a defeated person,” Juma said. “He lost any of his emotions.”
In the files, Juma also discovered the details of his father’s death, which was described as the result of “various kinds of complications.”
“It was a very heartbreaking situation,” Juma said, through tears. “He was so proud of us, (but) we weren’t able to be with him at the time… it was very painful.”
Despite the disturbing revelations, Juma said he felt a sense of “relief” from seeing the files, which was “empowering” after years of not knowing.
“The bitterness of desperation dissipates,” he said. “The darkness of not knowing also disappears.”
But Juma is still coming to terms with the enormity of the impact his departure from his homeland had on his family.
“Survivor’s guilt is very painful,” Juma said. “They are tied to you and they are persecuted; it’s not an easy feeling to digest.”
“It haunts you every day.”
Targeting geography teachers
Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur scholar living in exile in Norway, doesn’t feel any relief from searching through the police files — only grief.
In fact, he wishes he had never seen them.
Abduweli Ayup, on finding family members’ records
Ayup, who ran a Uyghur language school in Kashgar, fled Xinjiang in August 2015 after spending time in jail as a political prisoner, where he told CNN he faced torture and gang rape.
He had already heard that his brother and sister — along with several others — had been targeted because of him, but the search database gave him the first official confirmation.
SisterNieceBrotherAbduweli AyupMihray ErkinSajida AyupErkin Ayup
“This time the government document told me that yes, it is related to you, and it is your fault,” Ayup said, adding that he now feels “guilty and responsible.”
His sister, who taught geography at a high school for 15 years, was listed in the police files as one of 15,563 “blacklisted” people.
“I have learned that my younger sister, she got arrested,” Ayup said. “The reason is, she (is) accused of (being a) ‘double-faced government official,’ and she (was) blacklisted because of me.”
Uyghurs working in government jobs in Xinjiang while continuing to practice their cultural beliefs were often accused of being “two-faced,” Ayup said, categorized as “traitors, not 100% loyal to the government.”
‘I will live in fear’
When she first used the new search tool, Marhaba Yakub Salay, a Uyghur living in Adelaide, Australia, found police records for two relatives she did not expect: her young niece and nephew, who were aged just 15 and 12 when the files were made in 2017.
The nephew was labeled as a “Category 2” person on the blacklist, described as a “highly suspicious accomplice” in “public security and terrorism cases.”
Marhaba Yakub Salay (34) found files for her young niece and nephew using the online search tool.
The files on Salay’s niece and nephew suggested they had traveled to at least one of 26 “suspicious” countries which included Syria and Afghanistan. Salay said that was not true — they had only ever traveled outside China to go on holiday to Malaysia.
“This is insane… this is terrible,” Salay said as she read through her nephew’s file. “He’s turning 18 in a couple of months’ time. Are they going to arrest him?”
Salay’s sister Mayila Yakufu — the mother of the children — was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail at the end of 2020, after she had spent several years in other camps.
Yakufu is accused of financing terrorism after she wired money to Salay and their parents in 2013, so they could buy a house in Australia — which the family has proved with banking records. Mayila and Marhaba’s brother left Xinjiang in 1998, and later died in an accident in Australia in 2007 — but his ID card was still cited as a suspicious connection to the children.
“I think the suspicion level (Category 2) is about my late brother, but they tried to connect my 12-year-(old) nephew with my brother, who passed away 15 years ago,” Salay said. “These two people, they have never met each other.”
Marhaba Yakub Salay, on finding family members’ records
‘Like a virus of the mind’
The extension of “guilt by association” to children reflects the paranoia which the Chinese state holds toward the Uyghur population, according to Zenz.
“The state considers the entire family to be tainted,” Zenz said. “And I think that’s consistent with how Xi Jinping and other officials (in) internal speeches have described Islam like a virus of the mind that infects people.”
As the families look through these files, their instinct is to search for logic and reasons for what happened to their loved ones. But they find only confusion.
“Guilt by association can work quite extensively, and the logic behind it is quite fuzzy and the reach is pervasive,” Zenz said.
This “fuzzy” logic was explained by a former Xinjiang police officer turned whistleblower, who told CNN in 2021 the idea had been to detain Uyghurs en masse first, and find reasons for the arrests later.
The ex-detective — who went by the name Jiang — said that 900,000 Uyghurs were rounded up in one year in Xinjiang, even though “none” of them had committed any crimes. He admitted torturing inmates during interrogations, adding that some of his colleagues acted like “psychopaths” to extract confessions to various crimes.
The US government has accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang — and a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that China may have carried out crimes against humanity. China has vigorously denied those allegations.
With this new deluge of leaked data, the researchers hope to add to the growing body of evidence on the policies inside Xinjiang — and they hope that providing widespread access to the files will drive renewed efforts by governments and human rights organizations to hold China accountable.
“I sincerely hope that this is going to inspire some hope among the Uyghurs,” Zenz said.
For Uyghur families around the world, desperate to be reunited, each one of the 830,000 names represents a loved one.
“Beautiful souls are being destroyed behind those numbers,” Mamatjan Juma said. “There is suffering without any reason.”
Correction: This story was updated to replace and correct a photo of Abduweli Ayup’s niece.
Have you managed to track down your loved ones using the new search tool? Please contact UyghurFamilies@CNN.com if you’d like to share your stories.
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