September 22, 2021

U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided on COVID-19 origins after review

U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided on the origins of the coronavirus but believe China’s leaders did not know about the virus before the start of the pandemic, according to results released Friday of a review ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden.

According to an unclassified summary, four members of the U.S. intelligence community say with low confidence that the virus was initially transmitted from an animal to a human. A fifth intelligence agency believes with moderate confidence that the first human infection was linked to a lab. Analysts do not believe the virus was developed as a bioweapon.

China’s refusal to fully co-operate with U.S. and international investigations of the virus has hampered reviews of the virus’ origins. The director of national intelligence said Friday that China “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries including the United States.”

The cause of the coronavirus remains an urgent public health and security concern worldwide.

In the U.S., many conservatives have accused Chinese scientists of developing COVID-19 in a lab and allowing it to leak. The scientific consensus remains that the virus most likely migrated from animals in what’s known as a zoonotic transmission.

A COVID-19 testing sign is shown on display at Los Angeles International Airport. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Probe raises China’s ire

China’s foreign ministry attacked the U.S. investigation ahead of the report’s release. Fu Cong, a Foreign Ministry director general, said at a briefing for foreign journalists that “scapegoating China cannot whitewash the U.S.”

“If they want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China,” he said.

Biden in May ordered a 90-day review of what the White House said was an initial finding leading to “two likely scenarios”: an animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House said then that two agencies in the 18-member intelligence community leaned toward the hypothesis of a transmission in nature and another agency leaned toward a lab leak.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday did not identify which agencies supported either hypothesis. But it noted some of the same hurdles facing the World Health Organization and scientists worldwide: a lack of clinical samples and data from the earliest cases of COVID-19. Beijing’s co-operation would most likely be needed to make further progress, the office said.

In conducting the review, intelligence agencies consulted with allied nations and experts outside of government. An epidemiologist was brought into the National Intelligence Council, a group of senior experts that consults the head of the intelligence community.

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