US president says spymasters have differences of opinion over likely origins of coronavirus pandemic
(AF) President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered US intelligence agencies to report to him in the next three months on whether the Covid-19 virus first emerged in China from an animal source or from a laboratory accident.
Agencies should “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 released by the White House.
According to Biden, agencies are currently split over the two possible sources for the virus that swept the planet over the past year, killing more than 3.4 million people – a figure experts say is undoubtedly an underestimate.
He said the agencies have “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but have not reached a definitive conclusion.
“While two elements in the [intelligence community] lean towards 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 on Wednesday.
China has said it is not responsible for the pandemic, and has criticised what it views as politicisation of the origins debate.
“Origin-tracing of the virus is a scientific issue,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijun. “The purpose is to improve human understanding of the virus and better guard against infectious diseases in the future.
“After the outbreak of the pandemic, China took the lead to support the World Health Organization in conducting researches on origin-tracing on a global scale,” Zhao added.
A team of WHO scientists who visited China in January and February concluded in March that it was highly unlikely the disease had escaped from the Wuhan lab, though the agency later admitted that its investigation, which was facilitated by Beijing, had left some questions unresolved.
MORE STUDIES NEEDED
The WHO said on Wednesday that more studies were needed in a range of areas, including the lab-leak hypothesis, and that it was still reviewing recommendations from its report.
But Adam Schiff, chairman of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, called on China to be forthcoming and for “premature or politically-motivated conclusions” to be avoided.
“Beijing’s continued obstruction of a transparent, comprehensive examination of the relevant facts and data about the source of the coronavirus can only delay the vital work necessary to help the world better prepare itself before the next potential pandemic,” Schiff said.
The US National Institutes of Health previously funded bat coronavirus research in Wuhan, but has denied supporting “gain of function” experiments that involve modifying a virus so that it becomes more transmissible to humans.
The grant was terminated last year by the administration of former president Donald Trump.
With reporting by Agence France-Presse