May 26, 2021 - World

Biden asks intelligence community to intensify investigation of COVID origins


Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Biden announced Wednesday he has asked the U.S. intelligence community to "redouble their efforts" to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and provide a report within 90 days that "could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion."

Why it matters: The debate over the origins of COVID-19 has been reinvigorated in recent days by previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill enough to be hospitalized in November 2019.

The state of play: Biden said in a statement that the U.S. intelligence community had "coalesced around two likely scenarios" for the origins of the virus — one, that it emerged from human contact with an infected and animal, and two, that it was the result of an accidental laboratory leak.

  • A joint team from the World Health Organization and China issued an inconclusive report in March that described the so-called lab-leak theory as "extremely unlikely."
  • But the report has been criticized by the U.S. and WHO leadership for its methodology and lack of transparency from the Chinese government, and top U.S. officials have called for a new investigation.

What they're saying: Biden said the U.S. intelligence community's current position is that “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," Biden said in a statement.
  • "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."

Our thought bubble: Whether COVID-19 ultimately originated in an animal or in a lab, the bulk of the evidence is in China, which limits what the U.S. can find out. But Biden's statement underscores the fact that this debate will not end any time soon, and that the U.S. could ramp up pressure on China to cooperate.

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