WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Wednesday he has asked the intelligence community to report within 90 days on the likely origins of COVID-19.
As questions grow about whether the virus was the result of an accident in a Chinese laboratory or spread through other means, Biden said in a statement he wants the community, which has been divided over the issue, to “redouble” their investigative efforts.
As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios,” according to Biden’s statement.
What we know: US intelligence found Wuhan lab researchers fell sick in fall 2019
While two elements of the community lean toward the likelihood that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal, one leans toward the possibility of a laboratory accident. Their assessments are made “with low or moderate confidence.” and the majority of members of the intelligence community “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
“I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” Biden said.
That includes involving the national laboratories and government agencies other than the intelligence apparatus. Biden also said he wants to know what further areas of inquiry are needed, including specific questions for China.
It’s not clear how the administration will get cooperation from China, which has accused the United States of hyping “the lab leak theory.”
“We’re just going to continue to work with (the World Health Organization) and WHO is going to continue to work with China on this,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
She declined to say whether the 90-day report’s conclusions will be made public.
Biden’s directive comes a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the World Health Organization that international experts must be able to independently assess the source of the virus.
President Biden pledged to send at least 80 million doses of coronavirus vaccines abroad by the end of June.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday cited a U.S. intelligence report saying that three researchers at a lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the coronavirus pandemic is believed to have originated, fell sick in the fall of 2019,
The previously undisclosed information provides fresh details on the timing of the hospital visits about a month before China reported the first infections. China and the WHO have downplayed calls for a broader investigation into whether the virus could have escaped from a laboratory where it was being studied, collected from a bat or other animal.
A WHO team that spent two weeks in China early this year was only allowed limited access to laboratories studying similar viruses and to data about the earliest cases.
The team found the most evidence for the possibility that the virus passed through more than one animal before arriving in humans. Investigators said a lab leak, was an “extremely unlikely pathway.”
After the report was released in March, the United States joined a number of other countries in raising concern that the study “was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”
“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN earlier this year.
White House officials have said they’ve been pressing for an international investigation led by the WHO.
“It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China,” Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser on the national COVID-19 response, told reporters Tuesday. “We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now.”
Jean-Pierre said Biden’s public directive was not a reaction to the recent news and is an issue he “has been working on for some time.”
Biden, in March, asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to have the intelligence community put together their most up-to-date analysis, according to his statement.
Until Wednesday, however, the White House had kept the public focus on an international investigation.
“We need that data. We need that information from the Chinese government,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “What we can’t do, and what I would caution anyone doing, is leaping ahead of an actual international process.”
While Biden received the intelligence report earlier this month, the administration needed time to declassify what could be publicly discussed, according to Jean-Pierre.
“This is something that has been going on since March. This is not a change,” she said. “What has changed is, he wants to give it another 90 days, to dig a little deeper.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel is undertaking its own “deep dive” and hopes to finish “in the coming months.”
Scientists want answers: Did the coronavirus come directly from animals or was it released from a lab?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID origins: Biden asks US intelligence for report in 90 days