National Security

Intel community: Competing COVID-19 origin theories not ‘more likely than the other’

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The U.S. intelligence community said Thursday that it is unsure whether the coronavirus was more likely to have come from a lab or through human contact with infected animals.

A statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) describes an intelligence community split over competing theories for the origin of virus.

“The U.S. Intelligence Community does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident,” Assistant Director of National Intelligence for Strategic Communications Amanda Schoch said in a statement.

“While two elements of the IC lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements within the IC do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” she added. 

The ODNI is composed of 17 different intelligence agencies and would not comment on which were responsible for drawing the conclusions.

The statement comes as the White House has backed efforts to reopen discussions around the lab scenario, which was initially dismissed as unlikely.

President Biden on Wednesday ordered the intelligence community to redouble its efforts to ascertain the origins of the virus and “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,” Biden said in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal cited a U.S. intelligence report that several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with flu-like symptoms in November 2019 — just before the coronavirus began infecting people across China and then the world — and that they required hospitalization.

The Senate on Wednesday night passed legislation requiring ODNI to declassify information about the origins.

The bill, spearheaded by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), gives the ODNI 90 days to declassify “any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the coronavirus disease.” 

In recent hearings with lawmakers, intelligence officials offered little information on the lab theory, saying they’ve largely been unable to rely on Chinese information.

“I think it is clear that the Chinese government was not fully forthcoming or transparent especially very early on in the pandemic, when, you know, transparency, and being forthcoming might have made a much bigger difference for the rest of the world,” CIA Director William Burns said in April. 

—Updated at 6:02 p.m.

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus origin covid 19 lab covid transmission COVID-19 COVID-19 origins Joe Biden Josh Hawley Mike Braun William Burns zoonotic diseases
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