The intelligence community has confirmed that at least one of its 18 spy agencies is leaning toward the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis on COVID-19’s origins while two are leaning toward a natural origin, with the vast majority remaining undecided as the spy offices investigate both possibilities.
This follows a call from President Joe Biden on Wednesday for the intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to get to the bottom of how the global pandemic began, amid continued intransigence from the Chinese Communist Party.
“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,” Amanda Schoch, the assistant director of national intelligence for strategic communications, said on Thursday. “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. The IC continues to examine all available evidence, consider different perspectives, and aggressively collect and analyze new information to identify the virus's origins.”
Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the Chinese government worked for over a year to thwart an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, which has killed 3.5 million people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. Both administrations have cast doubt on the manner in which the joint study from China and the World Health Organization was conducted in early 2021. The WHO-China report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” and that a jump from animals to humans was most likely, but Trump officials, Republican leaders, some Democrats, and a number of scientists have pointed to an accidental escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as, at minimum, a highly plausible origin for the pandemic.
Biden issued a lengthy statement about this on Wednesday, a day after it was revealed that the Biden administration had ended a COVID-19 origins investigation by the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance that had been initiated by the Trump administration.
“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,” Biden said in a White House press release. “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.”
Biden added: “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.”
The president said that, in March, he had his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, “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.” He said he received that report earlier in May and requested “additional follow-up” because the intelligence community “has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question.”
Before boarding Air Force One on Thursday, Biden signaled to reporters that he is prepared to make the intelligence report public, saying, “Yes, unless there's something I'm unaware of.”
Former President Donald Trump said Monday that he has “very, very little doubt” COVID-19 originated at a Wuhan laboratory. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Trump, said earlier this year that COVID-19 likely originated through an accidental escape from the Wuhan lab and hinted this occurred following gain-of-function research there. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the Wuhan lab is the most likely origin for COVID-19.
A State Department fact sheet released in mid-January under the waning Trump administration contended that Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” the State Department fact sheet said, adding that the Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The Biden administration has thus far not weighed in publicly on that intelligence.
Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, who oversees the 18 spy agencies, including the recently added Space Force element, testified before the Senate in April about COVID-19’s origins.
“It is absolutely accurate the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially,” Haines said. “And basically, components have coalesced around two alternative theories. These scenarios are, it emerged naturally from contact with infected animals, or it was a laboratory accident. … And that is where we are right now. But we're continuing to work on this issue and collect information and, to the best we can, essentially, to give you greater confidence in what the scenario is.”
ODNI had weighed in on this during the Trump administration, too, saying back in April 2020 that “the entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China.”
The office, then led by acting DNI Richard Grenell, who oversaw 17 spy offices, added that “the Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” That assertion was not included in Thursday’s ODNI statement.
“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security,” the intelligence community statement said in April 2020. “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
A senior intelligence official contended to the Washington Examiner in May 2020 that a majority of the intelligence community’s spy agencies believe the coronavirus more likely originated with an accidental lab escape from a laboratory in Wuhan.
John Ratcliffe, the former director of national intelligence who succeeded Grenell and served through the end of the Trump administration, said in February that the joint WHO-China study ignored evidence about the Wuhan lab put out by the Trump State Department.
China denies that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab and has attempted to cast doubt on it originating in China, baselessly suggesting that the U.S. military is to blame.
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