US legislators approve COVID origins intel declassification

Unanimous House vote sends bill to declassify US intelligence info related to COVID origins to US President Joe Biden.

Robert Redfield, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arrives for the start of a hearing by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic [J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

The United States House of Representatives has unanimously approved a bill that would require government intelligence agencies to declassify information related to the origins of COVID-19.

The sweeping bipartisan measure was approved on Friday with 419 votes in favour, and zero opposed. The bill now goes to the desk of US President Joe Biden, who has not indicated whether he plans to sign or veto the legislation, which was approved by a unanimous Senate vote in early March.

Even if the president vetoes the bill, both chambers of Congress are on track to have the two-thirds majority needed to overcome the barrier.

While experts have said the true origin of the coronavirus — which was first recorded in Wuhan, China, in 2019 — may never be known, legislators have pushed for a clearer picture of the information gathered by the US intelligence community to date.

“Transparency is a cornerstone of our democracy,” Representative Jim Himes, the Democrat ranking member on the House Committee on Intelligence, said during a brief debate on Friday.

“The American public deserves answers to every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Representative Michael Turner, the Republican chairman of the committee.

That includes, he said, “How this virus was created and, specifically, whether it was a natural occurrence or was the result of a lab-related event.”

The World Health Organization has also urged all countries to reveal what they know about the origins of COVID-19, with Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying that “all hypotheses on the origins of the virus remain on the table”. He urged countries to resist politicising the search for the virus’s origins.

US agencies remain divided on their assessment of whether the virus spread to humans from an infected animal or escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after being naturally collected.

No US intelligence assessment has indicated the virus was man-made, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told senators during a hearing on Wednesday.

“Basically, there’s a broad consensus in the intelligence community that the outbreak is not the result of a bioweapon or genetic engineering,” she said. “What there isn’t a consensus on is whether or not it’s a lab leak.”

The US Department of Energy concluded with “low confidence” that the virus probably escaped via a lab accident, agreeing with the assessment of the FBI but contradicting the conclusions of several other agencies.

Robert Redfield, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued for the lab leak theory before senators on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institutes of Health have identified an infected animal as the likely culprit.

If signed into law, the bill would require within 90 days the declassification of “any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the Coronavirus Disease”.

That includes information about research and other activities at the lab and whether any researchers grew ill.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies