What's the 'Z Division'? A secret team of scientists searches for answers on COVID-19's origins – USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Tucked away in a secretive office, a little-known team of government scientists began looking into al-Qaida and the possibility of a biological weapons attack after terrorists exposed a “gaping hole” in national security on Sept. 11, 2001.
Known simply as the “Z Division,” the team was established in the U.S. Department of Energy to help intelligence agencies understand the significance of Soviet nuclear weapons tests. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks would change its mission. 
Two decades later, the Z Division finds itself in the middle of a storm as it tries to answer the question that scientists, doctors and ordinary Americans are asking about the roots of the COVID-19 pandemic: How did it happen?
A new classified intelligence report prepared by experts from the Energy Department’s national laboratory complex, including scientists in the Z Division, concluded the pandemic probably started with an unintentional laboratory leak in Wuhan, China. The findings have been sent to White House and key members of Congress, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news.
The report has ignited a backlash against the Biden administration from members of the scientific community and elsewhere who are pushing the argument that the virus most likely emerged through natural means, such as animal-to-human transmission.
The White House hasn’t endorsed the Energy Department’s findings, noting that there is still disagreement across the government on the virus’ origins.
Four agencies within the intelligence community have concluded with “low confidence” that the virus was initially transmitted from an animal to a human, according to a report by the Director of National Intelligence in October 2021. A fifth intelligence agency believed with “moderate” confidence that the first human infection was linked to a lab.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said late Tuesday that the bureau – one of many U.S. intelligence agencies involved in the pandemic outbreak investigation – has assessed that the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic was “most likely a potential lab incident” in Wuhan. Wray told Fox News’ Bret Baier in an interview that the FBI’s work on determining where the pandemic originated is continuing, but many details related to the investigation remain classified.
Now, the Energy Department’s new assessment, based on unspecified new intelligence, reflects a change of heart for the agency.
The department had said earlier that it was undecided on how the virus was transmitted. But even its new conclusions were made with “low confidence,” meaning that the information on which the assessment was based was not reliable enough or that not enough data was available to reach a conclusion.
The Energy Department is one of 18 agencies and organization that make up the U.S. intelligence community. The department has a division that specializes in the study of biological weapons.
The White House did not respond to questions about the intelligence assessment. But The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that the analysis was done by experts from the U.S. national laboratory complex, including members of the Z Division. Though initially undecided about COVID-19’s origins, the new intelligence assessment prompted Department of Energy officials to conclude the virus spread was likely a result of a lab leak.
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Z Division is housed in the Department of Energy’s nuclear complex, the result of an agreement in 1965 between the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission.
Under the agreement, laboratory scientists and engineers who helped intelligence agencies understand the significance of Soviet nuclear weapons tests were consolidated into a special projects branch. They analyzed radiological samples from nuclear tests by the Soviets, and later, the Chinese. In the mid-1970s, Z Division started a nuclear proliferation monitoring program that examined the nuclear weapons efforts of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and other nations.
“In its heyday, it was really a storied place, especially for understanding of foreign nuclear weapons programs,” said Matthew Bunn, a former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who now runs the nuclear proliferation program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
“I would say they’re one of the jewels in the crown of U.S. nuclear intelligence.”
Bunn described Z Division as “more or less” the intelligence arm of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California because it was responsible not just for having a deep understanding of the technology of nuclear weapons and other threats but also the top-secret details about the political and organizational aspects of foreign weapons programs and the leaders overseeing them.
“So when you had a new ambassador who was going out to a foreign country that had nuclear weapons, you’d send them out to Z Division to get the best briefing on that program,” Bunn told USA TODAY.
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After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the mission of Z Division changed dramatically along with the rest of the Lawrence Livermore lab, the Department of Energy and the broader intelligence community, according to Energy Department documents.
On 9/11, Susan Allen, a Z Division molecular biologist and intelligence analyst, was giving a briefing in downtown Washington when word came that a plane had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center, a Lawrence Livermore lab report from 2021 said.
Allen said she happened to pass by the Pentagon and saw “the gaping hole caused by the crashed American Airlines flight 77.” Allen flew home on Sept. 18. Back at the lab, the report said, “she began looking into al-Qaeda and the possibility of a bio-terror attack.”
After working with Z Division’s biological weapons team for several weeks, she was assigned to Washington to support the U.S. intelligence community.
The day Allen arrived, news broke of the first reported death from anthrax-laced letters sent to elected officials and prominent members of the media. She spent the next several weeks working 15-hour days to determine the source of the letters, advising the government and inspecting facilities and mail-handling operations, the lab report said.
“You worked as hard as you could all day and into the evening, and then went to the hotel and crashed and got up again the next day and did it all over again,” Allen said. “It was satisfying in the sense that you felt like you were doing something of value and having the impact for your country.”
In June 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported that Z Division researchers had helped prepare a report on the origins of COVID-19 that concluded the theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan is plausible and deserved further investigation, citing “people familiar with the classified document.”
The Journal said that the study was prepared in May 2020 by the Lawrence Livermore lab’s Z Division and that it was drawn on by the State Department when it conducted an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins during the final months of the Trump administration.
The Journal said that the Lawrence Livermore lab has considerable expertise on biological weapons and that its assessment drew on genomic analysis of the SARS-COV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
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Nearly half of Americans think COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a lab leak in China, according to a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday.
Forty-four percent of U.S. adults polled said they believe the virus spilled from a virology lab in Wuhan, while just 26% believe the virus moved naturally from animals to humans. The share of Americans who believe the lab theory has held steady since June 2021, the pollster said.
Follow Michael Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Josh Meyer @JoshMeyerDC
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