U.S. Officials Press for More Thorough Inquiry Into Virus Origins
The move was a public indication that his administration takes seriously the possibility that the virus was accidentally leaked from a lab, as well as the prevailing theory that it was transmitted to humans by an animal.,
Biden calls for U.S. agencies to ‘redouble’ investigative efforts into the origins of the virus.
President Biden on Wednesday ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, indicating publicly that his administration takes seriously the possibility that it was accidentally leaked from a lab, as well as the prevailing theory that it was transmitted to humans by an animal.
In a statement, Mr. Biden made clear that the agencies had not reached consensus on how the virus originated. But he directed them to “redouble their efforts” and report back in 90 days.
The president’s statement, his most public and expansive yet on the uncertainty about how the virus spread, came as top health officials renewed their appeals this week for a more rigorous investigation and an earlier report by an international team of experts faced mounting criticism for dismissing the possibility that it had accidentally escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
In the past several days, the White House had downplayed the need for an investigation led by the United States and insisted that the World Health Organization was the proper place for an international inquiry. Mr. Biden’s statement was an abrupt shift, though officials declined to be specific about the shift.
“What has changed is, he wants to give another 90 days to dig a little deeper, to double down — the I.C. to double down their efforts,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, referring to the intelligence community. “The W.H.O. doing their thing and the I.C., doing what they’re doing currently is not mutually exclusive.”
But Mr. Biden’s comments suggested that his government’s review of the evidence made it that much more urgent for American investigators to take the lead. In his statement, the president said he had asked his national security adviser in March to instruct intelligence officials to report on their latest analysis of the virus’s origins.
Mr. Biden said he had received their report this month before asking for “additional follow-up.” The intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios,” he said, but they had not definitively answered the question.
“Here is their current position: ‘While two elements in the I.C. 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,'” Mr. Biden said.
The calls from the president and other top American health officials were the latest in a series of White House demands in recent months that any such inquiry be free from Chinese interference. But they drew additional attention as some scientists expressed a new openness to the idea of a lab accident and the W.H.O. grappled with how to respond.
A joint W.H.O.-China inquiry whose findings were released in March dismissed as “extremely unlikely” the possibility that the virus had emerged accidentally from a laboratory.
Those suggestions that the coronavirus may have been accidentally carried out of a laboratory in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan were largely drowned out last year by scientists’ accounts of its likely path from an animal host to humans in a natural setting.
Many scientists, including those who lead American health agencies, believe that a so-called spillover event remains the most plausible explanation for the pandemic. But the joint inquiry by the W.H.O. and China did not settle the matter: The Chinese government repeatedly tried to bend the investigation to its advantage, and Chinese scientists supplied all the research data used in the final report.
Dr. Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, criticized the report while testifying to Senate lawmakers on Wednesday about the agency’s budget.
“It is most likely that this is a virus that arose naturally. But we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident,” he said. “That’s why we’ve advocated very strongly that W.H.O. needs to go back and try again after the first phase of their investigation really satisfied nobody.”