United States President Joe Biden has ordered aides to determine the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, saying US intelligence agencies are pursuing rival theories including a possible laboratory accident in China.
Intelligence agencies were considering two likely scenarios but still lacked strong confidence in their conclusions and were hotly debating which was more probable, Mr Biden said.
The conclusions were detailed in a report to Mr Biden, who asked his team in March to detail whether the novel coronavirus “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”.
Mr Biden’s unusual public disclosure about private and inconclusive US intelligence assessments revealed a debate raging within his administration over where the novel coronavirus originated.
It also lent credence to a theory that the virus may have emerged from a Chinese research laboratory instead of in nature.
The pandemic has killed more than three million people worldwide.
The origin of the virus remains contested among experts. The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
In a report issued in March and written jointly with Chinese scientists, a World Health Organization-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway”.
Washington’s frustration has mounted in recent weeks over what it sees as insufficient cooperation from China into the international investigation.
“I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” Mr Biden said.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China.”
In response to Mr Biden’s statement, China’s embassy in the US said that politicising the origins of COVID-19 would hamper investigations.
China supported “a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world”, the embassy said in remarks attributed to a spokesperson, posted on its website.
Calls for WHO to renew investigation
US agencies have been pursuing COVID-19’s origins since the government first recognised the virus as a serious health risk in early 2020.
Earlier this week, US government sources said a still-classified US intelligence report circulated during former president Donald Trump’s administration alleged that three researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.
The source of this early intelligence or how reliable US agencies rate it is not known.
It remains unclear whether the afflicted researchers were hospitalised or what their symptoms were, one of the sources said.
Intelligence committees of both the US Senate and House of Representatives are investigating how US agencies have reported on and gathered information about COVID-19’s origin, how it spread and how governments have responded to it.
A report issued by House intelligence committee Republicans earlier this month focused particularly on the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The Republican report asserted that “significant circumstantial evidence raises serious concerns that the COVID-19 outbreak may have been a leak” from the institute, suggested the Wuhan lab was involved in biological weapons research, and that Beijing had attempted to “cover up” the virus’s origins.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday grilled the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, over his position on the origin of the COVID-19 virus and previous US government funding of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio asked Dr Fauci, “Why did you dismiss the lab leak theory as credible?”
Dr Fauci insisted he never dismissed the theory, but said that he and most others in the scientific community believe that there was “a high likelihood that this is a natural occurrence from the environment of an animal reservoir that we have not yet identified.”
“I still maintain that,” he said.
But he continued that he was in favour of further investigation, “because no-one knows, including me, 100 per cent what the origin is.”
Washington has called for the WHO to open a second phase to its investigation on COVID’s origin.
On Wednesday in Geneva, WHO emergency director Mike Ryan said they expected to provide an update on their proposed next steps “in the coming weeks”.
China’s delegation to the WHO on Tuesday said they were calling on “all parties” to “adopt an open and transparent attitude” to cooperate with the WHO’s attempts to trace the virus’s origin.
Statement by President Joe Biden on the Investigation into the Origins of COVID-19
Back in early 2020, when COVID-19 emerged, I called for the CDC to get access to China to learn about the virus so we could fight it more effectively. The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, shortly after I became President, in March, I had my National Security Advisor task the Intelligence Community to prepare a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. I received that report earlier this month, and asked for additional follow-up. As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. Here is their current position: “while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.
The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.
Source: The White House