Wednesday morning, the U.S. Intelligence Community is nearly halfway through a 90 day review of the origins of COVID-19.
Investigators are looking at whether the virus emerged naturally from human contact with an infected animal, or if it accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. The so-called “lab leak” theory was initially dismissed by some high-profile scientists, but now it’s getting closer scrutiny.
In southwest China, the nearest known relatives of the COVID-19 virus were discovered in caves nearly a decade ago, more than 900 miles from Wuhan where the pandemic began.
“It’s impossible to tell whether that last bit of evolution took place in a laboratory or whether it took place in nature,” said Stanford Professor and Microbiologist David Relman.
Relman is no stranger to complex cases.
When anthrax was sent through the mail in 2001, he reviewed the science underpinning the FBI probe.
Now, he’s advising the government on the science behind the pandemic’s origins.
“The lab leak theory hypotheses are absolutely legitimate, they are plausible,” Relman said.
Relman told CBS News the Wuhan lab housed a vast library of bat coronaviruses, including specimens from the caves.
“They weren’t just studying these viruses. They were actually collecting samples from nature in the largest number with the greatest diversity of almost any place on the planet,” he said.
Seventeen months ago, as COVID-19 went global, and even less was known about the virus, a group of scientists labeled the lab leak theory a “conspiracy.”
“The letters that made very defiant or firm statements about the strong likelihood of a natural origin…I think did some real harm. They forced a lot of people into one way of thinking,” said Relman.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who supports the infected animal to human pathway, recently told CBS News an accidental lab leak is worth investigating.
“We always said, keep an open mind and continue to look. So I think it is a bit of a distortion to say we deliberately suppressed that,” said Dr. Fauci.
The lab leak theory gained traction in January after the State Department released this fact sheet (in the video above) accusing the Chinese communist party of “deceit and disinformation.”
David Feith, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, helped draft the fact sheet.
“Certainly there is new information over the last year,” said Feith.
Among the findings, that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick with COVID-19-like symptoms in the fall of 2019, before the Chinese communist party went public with the virus.
Feith said the information was solid and credible.
“The U.S. government’s information on this, on this fact, on the lab workers being ill was completely high confidence,” he said.
State Department investigators also found the Wuhan lab had military ties and did high-risk research on coronaviruses.
“They are hiding lab records, they are hiding medical records,” Feith said.
CBS News has also learned that one of the U.S. government’s top labs, Lawrence Livermore, issued a classified report last year that found the lab leak theory was plausible.
“We read it. And we were instantly both alarmed and impressed by its quality but alarmed by its conclusions,” said David Asher.
Until five months ago, Asher headed a coronavirus task force at the State Department.
“What I can say is that it was important and persuasive…We needed to do deeper diligence…including the potential it came out of a lab,” said Asher.
When a group of scientists gathered by the World Health Organization went to the Wuhan lab earlier this year, their access was limited.
Are those findings enough?
“No. Those findings were completely inadequate. They were not scientific at all. They were not forensic,” said Feith.
This lack of transparency rings true to Condoleezza Rice, who was the White House National Security Advisor at the outset of the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“We couldn’t get answers from the Chinese. And so if we’re not going to keep repeating this problem…We have to be a little bit more aggressive with the Chinese about the need to cooperate,” Rice said.
With nearly 4 million dead, including over 600,000 Americans, Professor Relman said solving the puzzle of COVID-19 will combat future pandemics.
“The better we understand the origins of this one, the better we can anticipate the origins of the next one,” Relman said.
In response to our questions, China’s Foreign Ministry said criticism of State Department investigators is unfounded, adding that Beijing has repeatedly emphasized the origin of COVID-19 is a scientific question and should not be politicized.