Coronavirus most likely to have jumped to humans from intermediary host, but some say lab accident cannot be ruled out.
United States President Joe Biden has instructed US spy agencies to review classified information about the origins of the coronavirus, including whether it came from contact between humans and animals, or from a research laboratory in China, in a move that drew condemnation from Beijing.
In a statement on Wednesday, Biden said that while the US intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios”, it had yet to reach a definitive conclusion as to where the coronavirus originated.
It also does not have high confidence in its current conclusions, and remains divided on which is most likely.
As a result, Biden said he had asked US intelligence agencies “to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” and report back to him in 90 days.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” the US president said.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study released at the end of March concluded that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal was the most likely scenario and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.
Questions persist, however, about the level of access WHO investigators had during a fact-finding mission in Wuhan, China, as well as earlier reports of illness among researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A group of 14 countries raised concerns about the WHO report, citing delays and a lack of full access to data, while the WHO chief also called for further investigation into the theory the outbreak was the result of a laboratory leak. China has strongly rejected that accusation.
Late on Thursday, China’s embassy in the United States criticised Biden’s move, saying that “politicising” the issue would hamper investigations into the origins of the coronavirus.
China supports “a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world,” the embassy said in remarks attributed to a spokesperson that were posted on its website.
US intelligence agencies have been examining reports that researchers at the Wuhan virology laboratory were seriously ill in 2019, one month before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported.
But US government sources cautioned earlier this week that there is still no proof the disease originated at the lab.
A still-classified US intelligence report circulated during former President Donald Trump’s administration alleged that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, sources familiar with the US intelligence reporting and analysis told the Reuters news agency.
It remained unclear whether the researchers were admitted to hospital or what their symptoms were, said one of the sources, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that the reports were “completely untrue”.
Meanwhile, Biden said on Wednesday that “the United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president’s directive should not be interpreted as a US rejection of the WHO study, but rather aimed at providing the best US information and resources to resolve ongoing questions.
“The WHO doing their thing and the [intelligence community] doing what they’re doing currently is not mutually exclusive,” Jean-Pierre said.
“This is something that could happen at the same time,” she told reporters at the White House.