Washington: President Joe Biden said he ordered the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble” its effort to determine where the coronavirus came from, after conflicting assessments of whether its origins are natural or a lab accident.
In a statement Wednesday, Biden said the intelligence community delivered a report to him earlier this month that showed it was divided on the origins of the pandemic. Two “elements” of the community lean toward animals being the source, while one leans toward a lab origin, “each with low or moderate confidence,” Biden said.
“The majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” he added.
More than a year after the emergence of the worst pandemic in more than a century, scientists have yet to determine the virus’s origins. The first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China, where the Beijing government runs a high-security biosafety lab that researches coronaviruses.
U.S. politicians have debated the potential origin of the virus since nearly the start of the pandemic. Suspicions of the Wuhan lab have been fueled by Chinese resistance to international investigations, as well as Beijing’s own inconsistent explanations for the emergence of the virus.
Former President Donald Trump’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, said earlier this year that he believed the virus most likely escaped from the Wuhan lab.
Biden’s statement Wednesday makes plain that the U.S. continues to investigate whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the outbreak — a theory that has generally been downplayed by health experts.
Biden had asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in March to prepare a report on the origin of the virus. He said Wednesday that he has ordered a new report in 90 days.
“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,” Biden said. That includes “specific questions for China,” he said.
“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 said.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say which element of the intelligence community believed the lab was the likeliest source. She said the report was inconclusive but declined to say if Biden would take any action against China as a result of the investigation.
“We need to get to the bottom of this. As we all know, we’ve lost almost 600,000 Americans to Covid-19, and we have to get a better sense of the origins of Covid-19 and also: how do we prevent the next pandemic?” she said.
Asked whether Biden’s use of the phrase “lab accident” ruled out the possibility that it came from the lab purposefully, she replied: ”We haven’t ruled out anything yet.”
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that U.S. intelligence indicates three researchers from the lab became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care. The Journal also reported that the Chinese government is restricting access to an abandoned copper mine in southwest China where researchers from the Wuhan lab collected coronavirus samples after a 2012 incident in which six miners fell ill with a “mysterious” respiratory illness. Three died.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the Journal report.
“We don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion about the origins,” she said. “There is a need to look into a range of options. We need data, we need an independent investigation, and that’s exactly what we’ve been calling for.”
Diana DeGette, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Commitee’s Oversight and Investigation subcommittee, said during a hearing Wednesday that she supported determining whether the virus came from a lab.
“We’re going to do whatever investigation is appropriate,” she said in response to subcommittee Republican Michael Burgess of Texas, a medical doctor, who emphasized the panel needed to look into the virus’s origins.
A World Health Organization report earlier this year said the most likely origin was that the virus spread to humans from bats through an unspecified intermediary animal. But the White House criticized the report as incomplete and lacking crucial data, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough” and that the lab-leak theory needed more investigation.
Republican lawmakers have called for both investigations and retaliation, if it’s ever established the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab.
“If it did come from the lab, that’s something we need to know, right, because that’s a completely different problem for the world, and people who are in charge of that lab, and who set in motion this virus, need to be held accountable in some fashion to deter this in the future,” Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday.
The South Carolina Republican added: “I don’t know if it came from the lab or not, but it’s getting more likely that that’s the answer, as you exclude other possibilities.”
Redfield, who led the CDC under Trump, said in March that he thinks the Wuhan lab is the likeliest origin. However, Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and serves as a Biden coronavirus adviser, said that the majority of the public health community disagrees.
“I still believe that the most likely scenario is that this was a natural occurrence, but no one knows that 100% for sure,” Fauci said Wednesday in testimony on Capitol Hill.- Bloomberg