A declassified assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 was made available on 2021-10-29 and is based on information available through August 2021. Notably, it found wide agreement among the U.S. IC's 18 organizations on the following:
- "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."
- "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."
- "China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged"
However, while "all agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident," the IC "remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19":
- "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"
- "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."
- "Analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation without additional information"
The declassified report states that more information on the earliest cases may "alter our evaluation of hypotheses" and that, in the past, the "identification of animal sources has taken years."
By 2025, will a majority of US Intelligence Community organizations support a lab leak hypothesis for SARS-CoV-2 over a natural origin hypothesis?
This question will resolves as Yes if, at any time between November 1, 2021 to January 1, 2025, a majority of U.S. IC organizations that favor either the natural origin or lab leak hypotheses are said to favor the explanation that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab in Hubei. This means that only the IC organizations that expressly favor one explanation over the other will be considered for the purposes of this question.
For example, in the most recent declassified assessment, four organizations favor the natural origin hypothesis ("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"), one IC organization favors the lab origin hypothesis ("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"), and three organizations do not favor either hypothesis ("Analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation"). So in this case, there appear to be five IC organizations that favor one explanation or the other — four favor the natural origin hypothesis, and one favors the lab origin hypothesis. Since in this case 1/5 does not constitute a majority (>50%) of U.S. IC organizations that express support for either hypothesis, this would resolve negatively.
Note that probabilistic statements do not have to be made to constitute an IC organization expressing support for one of two hypotheses. Vague verbiage — e.g. "moderate confidence that SARS-CoV-2 most likely resulted from" — would be sufficient to be counted as support for one hypothesis or the other so long as it is clear that one hypothesis is favored over the other.
This question will preferentially resolve on the basis of an updated declassified assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community. However, this can also resolve on the basis of at least three credible media reports indicating that a majority of IC organizations favor one explanation over the other.
A statement by the IC or credible media reports must come out before 2025-01-01 for this to resolve positively — i.e., this will resolve on the basis of when such information/statement comes out publicly and not when the assessment itself was made.
Not all IC organizations have to express support for either hypothesis or even need to express a view at all. Rather, a simple majority of the IC organizations that do express that they at least somewhat favor one hypothesis over the other will be considered for resolution.
If an equal number of IC organizations favor either hypothesis (e.g. 4 favor the lab leak hypothesis and 4 favor the natural origin hypothesis), this resolves negatively.
The definitions of the lab leak and natural origin hypotheses used by the IC at time of resolution are what will be considered — e.g., if the IC considers "sampling" by members of a Hubei lab to fall under the lab leak hypothesis, then that is the definition Metaculus will use at time of resolution. However, if the definitions are unclear or ambiguous, then we will consider anything involving laboratory personnel who are doing research-related work of any kind to fall under the purview of the lab leak hypothesis, while all else falls under the natural origin hypothesis.