Biden orders nearer verification of Covid’s origin as U.S. intelligence weighs up Wuhan’s laboratory leak principle

Security guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan while members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus visit the institute in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, on February 3, 2021.

Hector Retamal | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he has ordered a closer scrutiny of intelligence on two equally plausible scenarios about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden announced that earlier this year he hired the intelligence community to “prepare a report on their most recent analysis of the origins of Covid-19, including whether it was from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident . “

“To date, the US intelligence community has banded together ‘around two likely scenarios’ but has not yet reached a final conclusion on this issue,” Biden said in a statement.

“Here is their current position: ‘while two elements in the IC are leaning towards the [human contact] Scenario and one is more inclined to [lab leak scenario] – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of the elements do not believe there is enough information to assess whether one is more likely than the other, “said Biden.

Biden’s statement reflects the unique way the intelligence services present their findings to seated presidents. This includes explaining when various agencies within the community disagree and using a low to medium to high scale to quantify analysts’ confidence in the accuracy of their ratings.

“I have now asked the intelligence services to redouble their efforts to gather and analyze information that could bring us closer to a final deal and report back to me in 90 days,” said Biden.

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre would not commit to making the results of any future report public.

Biden issued this new policy as the origins of the as yet officially unknown coronavirus pandemic came under scrutiny.

The hypothesis that the virus might have escaped a Chinese laboratory, although initially dismissed by some as a conspiracy theory, has gained more mainstream appeal in recent months.

The director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said in a testimony that a laboratory leak “certainly” was “a possibility”.

The CDC website currently states that while the exact source of the outbreak is unknown, “we do know that it originally came from an animal, likely a bat”.

Covid-19 was discovered near the city of Wuhan in the Chinese province of Hubei. The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has historically studied coronaviruses, is at the center of the turmoil surrounding the origins of the deadly pandemic that killed nearly 3.5 million people.

The review of that lab intensified this week when the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers there developed Covid-like symptoms in November 2019, just before the first cases of the virus were reported. The newspaper quoted a previously unpublished US intelligence report.

This latest news didn’t affect Biden’s decision to order an additional 90-day review, Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

“Nothing has changed,” she told reporters at the daily press conference. “This is just a continuation of what the president has been focusing on.”

So far, U.S. efforts to determine the true origin of the pandemic have met opposition from the Chinese government, which restricted outside access to the Wuhan laboratory and refused to share a log of the scientists’ activities.

White House officials say China has not been “completely transparent” in its global investigation into the source of Covid-19 and that a full investigation is needed to determine if the virus originated in nature or from a laboratory.

“We have to get to the bottom of whatever the answer,” Andy Slavitt, Senior Covid Advisor to the White House, said this week. “We need a completely transparent process from China, we need WHO to help on this matter, and we don’t feel like we have it now.”

The possibility that the Covid pandemic started with a laboratory leak has been rejected by the WHO, which said in a March report that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus would be introduced into humans in this way.

However, this report has been heavily criticized by scientists who said WHO briefly explained the possibility of a laboratory accident versus a natural origin scenario.

“The report lacks critical data, information and access. It presents an incomplete and incomplete picture, “said White House press secretary Jen Psaki when asked about the WHO’s stance on the origins of Covid.

The office of the director of the National Intelligence Service, who runs the country’s 18 intelligence agencies, did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Wednesday.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

—- CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Amanda Macias contributed to this story.

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