US intelligence remains divided over Covid’s origins, and Biden accuses China of withholding virus information

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden on Friday accused China of withholding “crucial information” about the origin of Covid-19, after the release of a summary of a report on the origin of the virus that US intelligence showed still divided on the subject. The content of the document had already been reported this week by several American newspapers.

Three months ago, Biden ordered US intelligence agencies to investigate the virus’s origins, reviving the hypothesis that the pathogen had escaped from a Chinese laboratory, an idea that last year had been dismissed as conspiratorial. In justifying the request, Biden stated that there was a large amount of data that had not been well analyzed.

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The summary of the report released on Friday points out that authorities have yet to determine whether the coronavirus has spread from an accidental leak from a Chinese laboratory or naturally, in an eventual transmission from animals to humans. Biden received the document on Tuesday.

“There is crucial information about the origins of this pandemic in the People’s Republic of China, but from the beginning, Chinese government officials have been working to prevent international researchers and members of the global public health community from having access to it,” said Biden in a statement. “To this day, the People’s Republic of China continues to reject calls for transparency and withhold information, even as the number of victims of this pandemic continues to rise.”

China firmly rejects that the virus has escaped its laboratory in Wuhan, but refuses to cooperate with further international investigations into the origin of the virus.

Groups within the extensive American intelligence community disagreed about the virus’s origins. While many thought the disease arose from “natural exposure to an infected animal or a close parent virus,” they had “little confidence” in that conclusion, according to the published summary.

Another intelligence segment, however, achieved “moderate confidence” that the first human infection with Covid was likely to be a “laboratory-associated incident, likely involving experimentation, manipulation of animals or samples by the Wuhan Institute of Virology” in China.

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The abstract itself concluded that researchers would not be able to provide a “more definitive explanation” without new information from China, such as clinical samples and epidemiological data on early cases.

On Wednesday, when the contents of the report had already been reported in the press, China criticized the investigation, which it called an American “politicization” of efforts to trace the origin of the coronavirus. Instead, Beijing suggested that the virus escaped from a laboratory at the Army’s Fort Detrick base in Maryland in 2019, calling for investigations into it.

“Inventing a Chinese scapegoat can’t clear America’s bar,” Fu Cong, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, said in a press briefing. — If the US insists that this is a valid hypothesis, they must do their part, and allow the investigation in their labs.

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On Tuesday, China’s envoy to the United Nations asked the head of the World Health Organization to investigate US laboratories. There is no substantive evidence to support Beijing’s suspicion.

In February, a joint WHO-China team visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but the United States said it was concerned about the access granted to the investigation.

In the months after the coronavirus pandemic emerged around the world, intelligence agencies began investigating how it started. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressured US agencies to investigate the theory that the virus was created inside a Chinese laboratory and accidentally leaked. Pompeo formed his own research group to study the issue.

During the Trump administration, intelligence agencies dismissed theories that the virus was deliberately spread. Despite this, they said they could not draw a conclusion about two alternatives: a natural transmission from an animal to a human, or an accidental leak from a laboratory in Wuhan that conducts research on various types of coronaviruses.

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While many scientists were initially skeptical of the leak theory in the lab, at least some were more open to examining it this year. Some scientists also criticized a World Health Organization report in March that deemed the leak theory unlikely.

Following this report, Biden government officials were frustrated by the Chinese government’s decision to fail to cooperate with further WHO investigations into the origins of the pandemic.

Faced with what they called Chinese intransigence and a divided American intelligence community, White House officials then ordered a 90-day investigation, which resulted in the report delivered to the president on Tuesday.

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Current and former officials have repeatedly warned that finding the precise origins of the pandemic may be the job of scientists rather than spies.

Under the direction of national intelligence director Avril Haines, the agencies have stepped up cooperation with scientists to better understand the current pandemic and the risk of future ones.

Authorities also warned that the 90-day review was likely too short to draw definitive conclusions. The entire contents of the report remain confidential for the time being.