President Joe Biden has asked the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to get to the bottom of how COVID-19 started spreading in human populations to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion.”
The new report, which is expected to build on existing intelligence, is due within 90 days.
Biden said that investigators may have additional questions for China as they work to determine whether it is more likely that the coronavirus emerged by accident from a lab that studies coronaviruses or whether it jumped from animals to humans in a more natural environment, as many experts have theorized.
“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,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday. He received the first report earlier this month.
“As of today,” Biden said, “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.’”
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that she did not have information on which “elements” of the intelligence community leaned one way or the other.
Due to a broad lack of evidence, the so-called “lab leak” idea was once completely dismissed as a conspiracy theory with links to the Trump administration’s racist depiction of the virus. Trump’s rhetoric ― including referring to COVID-19 as “the Kung Flu” and “the China virus” ― is credited with helping to fuel the uptick in violent crime against Asian Americans seen during the pandemic. Republicans in Congress have also used the theory in their political grandstanding against the Biden administration and its scientific advisers, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease.
From the beginning of the crisis, available evidence pointed to a natural origin. Previous coronavirus outbreaks are widely thought to have started after humans came into contact with infected wild animals; the 2003 SARS outbreak, for example, is now believed to have crossed from bats to civets to human beings, following a scientific investigation that took years. The 2012 MERS outbreak is thought to have made its way to humans from bats by way of camels.
The World Health Organization released a report in February saying it was “extremely unlikely” the virus escaped from a lab in China. But WHO leaders ― and leaders of its member nations ― have also criticized China for not being more forthcoming with information about where the pandemic may have originated.
This week, although he still believes the virus has a natural origin, Dr. Fauci also voiced support for further investigation into the matter.
The laboratory idea has gained traction as a credible possibility ― however remote ― over the past several months. It refers to the idea that a virus sample contained at the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have somehow inadvertently infected people, who spread it to others. (Another version of the lab leak theory, which posits that the virus was maliciously engineered and intentionally released, has no basis in fact.)
Earlier this month, a group of 18 researchers published an open letter in the journal Science saying more information on the virus’s origin was needed, stating: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”
The president said he expects the intelligence community to keep Congress “fully apprised of its work” on the subject.
Read Biden’s full statement below.
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.