FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau believes Covid-19 “most likely” originated in a “Chinese government-controlled laboratory.”
“The FBI has assessed for some time that the origin of the outbreak was most likely a laboratory incident,” he told Fox News.
It was the first public confirmation of the FBI’s classified judgment about how the pandemic virus originated.
China, which has denied a laboratory leak in Wuhan, called the accusation a scandal.
Mr Ray’s comments came a day after the US ambassador to China called for “more honesty” about the origins of the Covid-19 disease.
In his interview on Tuesday, Mr Ray said China was doing everything it could to “obstruct and confuse” efforts to identify the source of the global pandemic.
“That’s unfortunate for everybody,” he said.
In Wuhan, China, some studies suggest that the virus may have spread from animals to humans at the city’s seafood and wildlife market.
The market is a 40-minute drive from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a world-leading virus laboratory that has conducted research on coronaviruses.
Other US government agencies have drawn differing conclusions to the FBI, with varying degrees of confidence in their findings.
US media reported on Sunday that the US Department of Energy assessed with “low confidence” that Covid leaked from the lab. The company had previously said it was undecided on how the virus started.
On Monday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said US President Joe Biden supports a “whole of government effort” to find out how Covid started.
But he added that the US still had no clear consensus on what had happened.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “If there’s anything we’re willing to brief the American people and Congress, we’ll do it.”
An unclassified report released by a top U.S. intelligence official in October 2021 said four U.S. intelligence agencies assessed with “low confidence” that the virus originated from an infected animal or a related virus.
For months, at the height of the pandemic, the lab leak theory was seen as controversial, with top health officials publicly denying that the coronavirus could have been created in a lab environment and then escaped, accidentally or otherwise.
A World Health Organization (WHO) investigation called the lab leak theory “highly unlikely,” but after deep criticism of that investigation, the agency’s director-general later called for a new study: “All hypotheses remain open and require further investigation.”
Covid-19 first appeared in late 2019 and has led to the death of nearly seven million people.