Biden asks intel community to ‘redouble’ efforts probing COVID-19 origins
President Biden on Wednesday announced a ramped-up effort to determine the origins of COVID-19, reflecting a new acceptance in U.S. political and public health circles that the virus might have emerged naturally or from a Chinese lab in the city of Wuhan.
Biden asked the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to come to a definitive conclusion on the disease’s origins, calling on them to report back to him within 90 days.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said in a statement. “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,” Biden added.
Top intelligence officials including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines acknowledged at a hearing in April that a laboratory accident was a plausible scenario that the intelligence community was investigating.
Biden’s statement followed calls from other administration officials for a more thorough, independent investigation of the origins of the virus amid new questions about the possibility that the virus may have come out of a lab in Wuhan. While the White House has previously called for the World Health Organization (WHO) to spearhead further investigation, Biden’s statement focused on U.S. efforts to investigate the origins of the virus.
While the lab leak theory was initially dismissed as unlikely, it’s received new traction as some scientists have expressed openness to the theory.
Scientists haven’t discovered definitive proof the virus leaked from a lab. But they also have not found hard evidence that shows the virus started in animals before naturally infecting humans, which is why some argue an investigation is needed.
The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill that they sought hospital care in November 2019, fueling questions about whether the pandemic may indeed have started in a lab leak incident.
A WHO-led report issued earlier this year, which was prepared in conjunction with Chinese scientists, found that the coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans while labeling the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely.” At the time, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus indicated the need for further investigation and said all theories remained on the table.
The president said Wednesday that the intelligence community had already prepared a report at his request that analyzed whether COVID-19 “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident” that he received earlier this month, but that officials did not make a definitive conclusion. Biden said he requested that report in March.
Biden said that two elements of the intelligence community lean toward the scenario involving human and animal contact, while one leans toward the lab-leak scenario. The White House has not specified which element of the intelligence community leaned toward the lab scenario.
“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,’ ” Biden said.
The White House has pushed the WHO to undertake an independent investigation that is free from political influence in order to get to the bottom of the origins of the virus, which first broke out in Wuhan in 2019 and has killed almost 600,000 Americans.
The Biden administration has also increased pressure on China to be more forthcoming with data and information on the virus.
Top health officials this week have added to the calls from the White House for the WHO to initiate a swift follow-up investigation.
In a pre-recorded message to an annual ministerial meeting of the WHO, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said international experts should be given “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”
Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious diseases expert and White House medical adviser, on Tuesday said he thinks a more in-depth investigation is warranted.
“Many of us feel that it is more likely this is a natural occurrence, but we don’t know 100 percent the answer to that,” Fauci said during a White House briefing. “Because we don’t know 100 percent what the origin is, it’s imperative that we look and we do an investigation.”
It’s unclear whether officials will be able to reach a definitive conclusion on the origins of the virus with further investigation, particularly if China is not willing to cooperate. The White House has not said specifically what more the intelligence community will do beyond further scrutinizing data and intelligence.
White House senior coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt on Tuesday expressed frustration with the barriers China has imposed on international investigators.
“It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China. We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now,” Slavitt said.
“We need to get to the bottom of this, whatever the answer may be. That’s a critical priority for us.”
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden would seek to punish China if the review finds that a lab accident was the source of the pandemic, saying the White House would not prejudge the results of the review.
“We’re not going to go there just yet. We have to go through the 90-day review and once we have the 90-day review we will be able to reassess,” Jeanne-Pierre told reporters.
Updated at 2:42 p.m.