US President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts in investigating the origins of COVID, as well as the theory that it was a ‘lab leak’ in China.
This comes days after details of a US intelligence report emerged in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that three doctors working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019 – about when epidemiologists believe SARS-CoV-2 first began circulating in humans.
Mr Biden said the US intelligence community was divided on whether it was the result of a lab accident, or from jumping from human to animal. Mr Biden asked the groups to report back to him within 90 days.
China’s embassy in the US made a warning statement posted on its website, without mentioning the president’s remarks. “Smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of ‘lab leak’ is resurfacing.
“To politicise origin tracing, a matter of science, will not only make it hard to find the origin of the virus, but give free rein to the ‘political virus’ and seriously hamper international cooperation on the pandemic,” it said.
Authorities linked early COVID cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, leading scientists to theorise the virus first passed to humans from animals.
In a White House statement released on Wednesday, President Biden said he had asked for a report on the origins of COVID after taking office, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”. He asked for “additional follow-up” on receiving the report.
Mr Biden said most of the intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two scenarios, but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”.
The president has now asked agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”, and report to him within 90 days.
He concluded by saying the US would “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”.
Beijing meanwhile has previously suggested a possible US lab origin for COVID. The Chinese embassy said it supported a full investigation into “some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world”.
Mr Biden’s statement coincided with a CNN report that the president’s administration earlier this year shut down a state department investigation into a possible lab leak origin.
The ‘lab leak’ theory
When they first arose last year, the laboratory leak allegations were widely dismissed as a fringe conspiracy theory, with many US media outlets describing the claims as debunked or false after then-President Donald Trump said COVID had originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Two months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint report with Chinese scientists on COVIDs origins, rating the likelihood of an accidental lab release as “extremely unlikely”. However the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that he was not satisfied that the investigation had looked at this possibility enough to rate. The investigation only stirred up more interest in the ‘lab leak’ theory, with 18 scientists signing an open letter calling for more investigation before it could be ruled out.
There is little evidence for the ‘lab leak’ theory in the public domain however, and intelligence reports such as the one the Wall Street Journal based its story on are often of unproven provenance.
Chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci still believes that COVID jumped from animals to humans, though this month he admitted he was no longer confident COVID had developed naturally.
Mr Biden’s statement comes the day after Xavier Becerra, US secretary for health and human services, urged the WHO to ensure a “transparent” investigation into the virus’s origins.
“Phase 2 of the Covid origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” Mr Becerra said.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump sought to take credit in an emailed statement to the New York Post, saying: “To me it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticised, as usual. Now they are all saying: ‘He was right.'”
Source: BBC News