The Wall Street Journal, which spoke with people familiar with the classified document, reported that the May 2020 report from the California-based research facility made its conclusion based on genomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
People familiar with the study said that it was prepared by the intelligence arm of Lawrence Livermore called "Z Division." The Department of State (DOS) reportedly asked the laboratory for additional information when it received the report in October 2020.
The lab-leak theory is attracting renewed interest now that President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence agencies to take a closer look at the possibility. According to Biden, the intelligence community was split on whether the virus came from a lab accident or emerged from human contact with an infected animal. (Related: Chinese virologist: Fauci's emails proved coronavirus lab-leak theory is right.)
While some prominent scientists have called for a fuller probe of the lab hypothesis in recent months, many scientists still insist a natural spillover remains the most likely explanation. Scientists analyze the genetic makeup of viruses to try to determine how they evolved and spread in the population. Proponents on both sides of the debate over the origins of COVID-19 have cited such analysis to try to make their case.
The assessment by Lawrence Livermore is said to have been among the first efforts to seriously explore the hypothesis that the virus leaked from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
China's government has repeatedly denied that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory and said it is cooperating fully with international efforts to find the pandemic's origins. The WIV has also denied that the virus leaked from its facilities and said that none of its staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Lawrence Livermore report dated May 27, 2020, was important because it came from a respected national laboratory and differed from the dominant view in spring 2020 that the virus almost certainly was first transmitted to humans via an infected animal, a former official involved in the DOS inquiry said. The report's existence was reported by the Sinclair Broadcast Group last month and was noted in a recent article by Vanity Fair.
Days before Biden was sworn in, the DOS issued a fact sheet saying that several researchers at WIV had fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms before the first publicly known case. It also said that the institute had worked secretly with the Chinese military. The fact sheet was vetted by the country's intelligence agencies.
On June 6, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed discussing the possibility that the pandemic started with a virus escaping from the WIV.
Steven Quay, who holds both a master's and a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan, and Richard Muller, emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that there are two factors suggesting a lab origin of the outbreak that has infected close to 175 million people worldwide.
"The presence of the double CGG sequence is strong evidence of gene splicing, and the absence of diversity in the public outbreak suggests gain-of-function acceleration. The scientific evidence points to the conclusion that the virus was developed in a laboratory," the pair wrote.
A genome is a blueprint for the factory of a cell to make proteins. The language is made up of three-letter "words" that represent the 20 different amino acids. Quay and Muller noted that in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the CGG-CGG combination has never been found naturally.
But the double CGG sequence appeared in SARS-CoV-2.
According to Quay and Muller, the insertion sequence of choice in laboratory works is the double CGG because it is readily available and convenient and scientists have a great deal of experience inserting it. The double CGG sequence also creates a useful beacon that permits the scientists to track the insertion in the laboratory.
"Proponents of zoonotic origin must explain why the novel coronavirus, when it mutated or recombined, happened to pick its least favorite combination, the double CGG. Why did it replicate the choice the lab’s gain-of-function researchers would have made?" they wrote. (Related: Gain-of-function expert Dr. Peter Daszak bullied top scientists into covering up laboratory origins of SARS-CoV-2.)
"At the minimum, this fact – that the coronavirus, with all its random possibilities, took the rare and unnatural combination used by human researchers – implies that the leading theory for the origin of the coronavirus must be laboratory escape."
The difference in the genetic diversity of SARS-CoV-2 compared with the coronaviruses responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) also suggests that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab.
Both SARS and MERS were confirmed to have a natural origin – the viruses evolved as they spread through the human population until the most contagious forms dominated.
On the other hand, COVID-19 appeared in humans already adapted into an extremely contagious version. No serious viral improvement took place until a minor variation occurred many months later in England.
Such early optimization is unprecedented, suggesting a long period of adaptation that predated its public spread.
"Science knows of only one way that could be achieved and that is through simulated natural evolution, growing the virus on human cells until the optimum is achieved," Quay and Muller wrote. "That is precisely what is done in gain-of-function research."
Follow Pandemic.news for more news and information related to coronavirus origins.