The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an unusual public statement Thursday on the status of its intelligence gathering into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, publicizing divisions within the intelligence community about whether the virus escaped from a lab in China or occurred naturally.
The statement follows an order from President Joe Biden on Wednesday for the intelligence community to redouble its efforts to uncover the cause of the pandemic over the next 90 days.
ODNI spokesperson Amanda Schoch reiterated Biden’s announcement that the intelligence community is still working to determine how the virus originated “but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.”
Schoch repeated what Biden said Wednesday, that there is a difference of opinion among various intelligence agencies and their degrees of confidence in the theories.
“While two elements of the IC lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence — the majority of elements within the IC do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” Schoch said.
The intelligence community under the Biden administration has been notably more transparent about its understanding on certain key issues and has been willing to publicly disclose differences of opinion among the 18 intelligence agencies more than previous administrations. Earlier in the year, it disclosed differing confidence levels among intelligence agencies on the reported existence of bounties offered by Russia to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Thursday’s statement is also notable because it shows that the intelligence community has made little progress in determining the origins of the virus since its first statement on the subject in April last year.
In a congressional hearing last month, DNI Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee that US intelligence agencies still do not know “exactly where, when or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially” in China.
But there’s new pressure on the administration to address the issue after recent Wall Street Journal and CNN reporting on new information that underscored the plausibility of the lab theory, as well as new comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci — Biden’s chief medical adviser — that acknowledged he and other scientists may have been too definitive in previous public statements dismissing that possibility.
A US intelligence report found that several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology had been hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 and other seasonal illnesses — a new detail about the severity and the timing of their symptoms. China had reported to the World Health Organization that the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was recorded in Wuhan on December 8, 2019.
The director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, strongly denied the report, calling it a “complete lie” to the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also pressured Biden to delve deeper into the origin of Covid-19, as the Chinese government has maintained that the virus originated and spread naturally.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Wednesday called for “clear answers” from the intelligence community on the origins of coronavirus and said her panel would explore any additional options it could take.
Also on Wednesday, legislation backed by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana passed by unanimous consent requiring the Biden administration, specifically Haines, to declassify any intelligence relating to links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the US and its allies to continue to press China “to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.” The Chinese government has also been resistant to engaging in the WHO’s second phase of its investigation.
This story has been updated with background information.