The U.S. intelligence community has seen “indications” that China is seeking to influence the World Health Organization regarding the investigation into COVID-19’s origins, the Biden administration's spy chief said Thursday, adding that intel officials are taking the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis seriously and are confident the outbreak began in China.
The revelations came during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, at which Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, pressed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on whether the United States was concerned about the relationship between the WHO and the Chinese government.
“We’ve certainly seen indications that China is trying to influence the World Health Organization’s efforts in this area,” Haines said, adding that she didn’t think she could say more.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in late March that the WHO- China team that investigated COVID-19’s origins in early 2021 had not fully investigated the theory that the deadly virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab, which had been dubbed “extremely unlikely” by the WHO-China joint study. The State Department and U.S. allies released a joint statement critiquing the WHO-China report last month.
Fitzpatrick asked if the U.S. agrees with the WHO-China conclusions on the Wuhan lab.
“We do not make the assessment that the WHO report made — that it’s exceedingly unlikely, I believe is their language, or extremely unlikely. That is not our assessment,” Haines replied, saying the intelligence community believed a natural origin or a lab leak were both plausible and were both being investigated.
CIA Director William Burns agreed, saying, “I think at this stage, again as Director Haines said, this is something that we’re analyzing with the benefit of all the various sources that the intelligence community can bring to bear … That is not an assessment that we’re prepared to make at this point. We’re weighing both of the options.”
He added that “across the intelligence community, we’re working very, very hard with our own independent resources to try to get to the bottom of this.”
A Trump State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology declassified in mid-January assessed that lab workers fell ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in 2019, scientists there studied viruses genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2, and the Wuhan lab conducted secret experiments with the Chinese military as well as gain-of-function research. The Biden administration has not weighed in publicly on that.
Fitzpatrick asked Burns if there remained any reasonable doubt that the virus, which has killed nearly 3 million people worldwide and over 560,000 in the U.S., emanated from China.
“No. I think as Director Haines said, there are two plausible causes, but both of them are related to China physically,” Burns replied, adding he was “not aware of” any evidence to the contrary. He added he was “not aware of” any evidence that the virus was genetically engineered, saying, “Our assessment, the assessment of our analysts is consistent with the scientific consensus, is that it was not man-made.”
When asked if there was evidence that the Chinese government took active steps to conceal or slow-walk disclosing information on COVID-19, Burns said yes.
“I think it is clear that the Chinese government was not fully forthcoming or transparent, especially early on in the pandemic when transparency and being forthcoming might have made a much bigger difference to the rest of the world,” Burns said.
Officials from the Trump and Biden administrations said that the Chinese government worked to thwart an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. The U.S. has condemned China for spreading baseless conspiracy theories about COVID-19 originating with the U.S. military.
Rep. Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican, also asked Haines if she believed China was “intentionally responsible” for the outbreak.
“We just don’t know exactly where, when, and how the coronavirus was transmitted initially,” Haines replied. “We have two plausible theories that we’re working on and that we’re trying constantly refine — that components within the intelligence community have essentially coalesced around. One of them is that it was a laboratory accident, and the other is that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals.” When pressed on whether China was “negligently responsible” for COVID-19, she said the intelligence community doesn’t have a “clear, high-confidence assessment of how this occurred” and so she couldn’t say.
The ODNI director added of China that “they have not been forthcoming through this process, so our analysis is not based on an assumption that what they say is true, it is a reflection of what our intelligence community believes.”
LaHood questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray on whether China had been truthful.
“It is fairly clear that the Chinese government has not been fully forthcoming and transparent, not just with the United States but with the world, about the coronavirus,” Wray replied.
The Illinois Republican also asked if there was an “active criminal grand jury investigation” related to China and the coronavirus.
“We can’t confirm any kind of existence of a grand jury investigation, but certainly, we are looking and working with our colleagues in the intelligence community on issues related to the coronavirus origin,” Wray replied, adding that “if we find a violation of federal criminal law that was applicable, we would certainly take a look at it.”
“It is beyond doubt that the CCP actively engaged in a cover-up designed to obfuscate data, hide relevant public health information, and suppress doctors and journalists who attempted to warn the world,” a House GOP Foreign Affairs Committee report from September said.
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