Joe Biden has ordered the US intelligence community to intensify its efforts to study the origins of coronavirus, adding that it will continue to press for China to participate in a full investigation.
The president said he received a report earlier this month with the “most up-to-date analysis of the origins of Covid-19”, but had asked intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to identify a “definitive conclusion” on how the virus was first transmitted in humans.
“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,” Biden said in a statement on Wednesday.
The novel coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread around the world, killing almost 3.5 million people and infecting almost 168 million, according to Johns Hopkins.
Much remains unknown about its origins and China has been sensitive about any suggestion it could have done more in the early stages of the pandemic to stop it.
Biden’s request included asking the US intelligence community to explore the unlikely possibility that the origins of the virus trace to Chinese lab. After months of minimizing the possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is responding both to domestic and geopolitical concerns about putting pressure on China to be transparent about the outbreak.
Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have promoted the theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident, rather than naturally through human contact with an infected animal.
Biden’s request comes days after the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a previously undisclosed US intelligence report about three Wuhan researchers being hospitalized with coronavirus-like symptoms in November 2019. The report intensified public speculation that the virus began spreading as a result of a laboratory accident.
In his statement, Biden said the majority of the US intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two likely scenarios but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”. He revealed that two of the 18 intelligence agencies lean toward the animal link and “one leans more toward” the lab theory, adding, “each with low or moderate confidence”.
Biden directed US national laboratories to assist with the investigation and called on China to cooperate with international inquiries into the origins of the pandemic. Biden said he has also asked the intelligence community to keep Congress apprised of its work on the matter.
“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,” he said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington, without mentioning the Biden order, accused unnamed political forces of being fixated on a blame game while ignoring the urgent need to combat the pandemic.
“Smear campaign and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of lab leak’ is resurfacing,” the embassy said in a statement posted on its website.
Earlier this year China refused to authorize a fact-finding mission to the country by the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the origins of Covid-19. The move came amid Beijing’s attempts to reshape the narrative of where the disease originated.
Asked if the US intelligence community has ruled out the possibility of a deliberate release of coronavirus, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied: “We haven’t ruled out anything yet.”
Speaking on Wednesday, she repeatedly emphasized that the administration will have more information to offer on the investigation into the origins of coronavirus once the review is completed.
Jean-Pierre repeatedly criticized China for not being transparent with its information on the origins of the virus, echoing comments from other senior administration officials and international leaders.
White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Tuesday that the White House supports a new WHO investigation in China, but added it “would require China finally stepping up and allowing access needed to determine the origins.”
Biden, for his part, held out the possibility that a firm conclusion may never be known, given the Chinese government’s refusal to fully cooperate with international investigations.
“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid-19,” he added in his statement Wednesday.
On Wednesday evening, the US Senate passed a bill that seeks to declassify federal information relating to the origins of Covid-19.
Elsewhere, Facebook announced it was lifting a ban on posts claiming that Covid-19 was “man-made”, saying in a statement to Axios that the decision was made “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of Covid-19 and in consultation with public health experts”.