Intelligence community delivers report on COVID-19 origins to Biden

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Washington — The U.S. intelligence community has delivered findings from its 90-day investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to President Biden, a White House official said, acknowledging receipt of the report on Wednesday.

“The President was briefed on the classified report,” the official said. “We look forward to having an unclassified summary of key judgments to share soon.”

But the highly anticipated conclusion of the inquiry may rekindle, rather than settle, debate about the virus' origins and whether a research facility in Wuhan, China, bears any responsibility for starting the pandemic. Intelligence officials have for weeks downplayed the likelihood that agencies would arrive at a definitive conclusion, citing the Chinese government's lack of cooperation and early obfuscation of relevant data.  

In a briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there would be an unclassified version of the report released publicly in the coming days, but she said she didn't know “what format that will take yet.”

It was not immediately clear whether the White House would order a second investigation if the results of the inquiry are wholly inconclusive. Some lawmakers have called for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the source of the outbreak, and Republicans in the House have launched several investigations of their own into the matter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed more than 4 million lives worldwide, with the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus adding to its toll amid a rapid spread through vulnerable and unvaccinated populations. Insight into how the virus first infected humans is crucial to preventing and containing future outbreaks, public health officials say.   

In May, the president asked the intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to identify where and how the virus originated. In a statement at the time, Mr. Biden said that U.S. intelligence agencies had “coalesced around two likely scenarios,” but remained split as to which one was more likely.  

Intelligence officials have said since 2020 that agencies were weighing the possibility that the virus emerged naturally, through human contact with an infected animal, and the possibility that it was the result of a lab accident. They ruled out early on that the virus was man-made.  

Debate surrounding the virus' origin intensified this spring after it emerged that workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a top laboratory in China where research on bat coronaviruses was conducted, fell ill in November of 2019. The first confirmed cases of the virus occurred in December 2019 in Wuhan.  

China has pushed back forcefully on suggestions the virus emerged from the Wuhan lab. Its government has in recent weeks amplified a baseless claim that the U.S. military designed and released the virus.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued preliminary findings in March that said it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 originated as the result of a laboratory accident, but the organization's own director general — amid a global backlash that the WHO had caved to Chinese pressure — later said those findings were “premature.”  

In recent months, senior U.S. officials have warned that the results of their 90-day inquiry could ultimately be unsatisfying, despite a multi-agency push to arrive at an answer. 

In June, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo News that a “smoking gun” piece of evidence could remain elusive. 

“It might happen, but it might not,” she said.  

Haines added that U.S. intelligence analysts were working with foreign intelligence partners and outside scientific experts to collect as much new information as possible.  

In the interview, Haines also said analysts were examining the possibility of a hybrid scenario involving both of the working theories.

“It could be, for example, a scenario in which a scientist comes into contact with an animal that they're sampling from,” contracting the virus that way, she said.  

CIA Director William Burns said in an interview last month it was “possible” the virus's origins may never be known.  

“It is possible, like so many things that we may never be able to come to a definitive judgment [on],” Burns said, “but it's not going to be for lack of hard work or effort on this issue to try to uncover as much as we can about what happened.” 

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