President Joe Biden has ordered the US intelligence agencies to "redouble" their efforts in investigating the emergence of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and report back to him in 90 days, amid growing controversy about the virus's origins from a bio laboratory in China. COVID-19 was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
More than 168 million confirmed cases have since been confirmed worldwide and at least 3.5 million deaths reported. The announcement comes after a US intelligence report found several researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalised — a new detail that fuelled fresh public pressure on Biden to order a detailed investigation into the origin of the deadly virus.
"I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday. As part of that report, the president said he has 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," he said. Biden said 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 provide access to all relevant data and evidence.
Back in early 2020, when COVID-19 emerged, Biden had called for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get access to China to learn about the virus so that the US could fight it more effectively. "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 said.
"Nevertheless, shortly after I became President, in March, I had my National Security Advisor 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," the president said. "I received that report earlier this month, and asked for additional follow-up. As of today, the US Intelligence Community (IC) has coalesced around two likely scenarios but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. Here is their current position: while two elements in the IC lean 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," Biden said. He also said that 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".
Also on Wednesday, legislation backed by Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Mike Braun passed by unanimous consent requiring the Biden administration, specifically Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, to declassify any intelligence relating to links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities linked early COVID-19 cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, and scientists believed the virus first passed to humans from animals.
But recent US media reports quoting intelligence inputs suggest growing evidence the virus could instead have emerged from the Wuhan laboratory in China. China has rejected the reports and suggested it could have come from a US laboratory instead.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that it showed the US "does not care about facts or truth, and has zero interest in a serious science-based study of origins". "Their aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people's lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus," he said.
The spokesman also said US intelligence agencies had a "dark history" of spreading misinformation. The World Health Organisation conducted an investigation into the origins of the pandemic and concluded in a report that the risk of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where coronavirus research was being conducted on bats, was "extremely low." But the WHO probe has been criticised by the US, United Kingdom and other governments over its limited access to "complete, original data and samples." The WHO study was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists, several of them from state-run institutions.