WASHINGTON – American intelligence agencies have been unable to determine whether the coronavirus pandemic was the result of an accidental leak from a laboratory or whether it occurred more naturally, according to released parts of a report released to the White House on Friday.
The country’s espionage agencies, according to the office of the director of the National Intelligence Service, are unlikely to draw any conclusions without further cooperation from China or new sources of information.
In a statement, President Biden said the United States would continue to work to understand the origins of the virus and urged China to be more transparent about what led to its emergence there in late 2019 before it quickly spreads around the world .
“We will do everything in our power to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world so we can take all necessary precautions to prevent it from reoccurring,” said Biden. “There is critical information in the People’s Republic of China about the origins of this pandemic, but from the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it.”
As debates about the origins of the pandemic and China’s role intensified, Mr Biden directed the country’s intelligence services to produce a report on the source of the virus three months ago.
Following the review, the National Intelligence Council and four other intelligence agencies reported that they believed the virus that causes Covid-19 was most likely caused by “natural exposure to an infected animal from an infected animal or a closely related antecedent virus.”
Before the review was conducted, only two agencies favored the natural exposure theory. However, the new report said the Intelligence Council and other agencies advocating natural theory had little confidence in its conclusions – a sign that the intelligence behind the determination was not strong and that assessments may change.
On the other side of the debate, one agency said it had concluded with moderate confidence that the pandemic was the result of a “laboratory-associated incident” in China. According to the released report, analysts at this agency stressed the risky nature of working on coronaviruses. The agency also said the accident most likely involved “experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
Before the pandemic, there were two laboratories in Wuhan working on the coronavirus, but intelligence agencies have mainly focused on the work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The announcement by the director of the National Intelligence Service did not identify the agency advocating the laboratory leak theory. However, current and former officials said the FBI believe the virus was created in the laboratory. A former official said the office believed the virus was likely leaked to the public by laboratory technicians.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
The intelligence services all agreed that the virus likely wasn’t designed as a biological weapon, the same stance the U.S. government has taken for more than a year. The authorities also agreed that the first exposures that caused the outbreak were “by November 2019 at the latest,” according to the released conclusions.
Crucial to the debate over the origins of the virus, U.S. intelligence services don’t believe Chinese officials knew about it at the time of the outbreak, the report said.
“The IC assumes that China’s officials had no prior knowledge of the virus prior to the first Covid-19 outbreak,” the released report reads, using the initials for the intelligence community.
The three-month review ordered by Mr Biden was carried out to bring more scientific expertise into the investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Secret services used this time to investigate a treasure trove of data that had not yet been fully verified.
These data, taken from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, did not provide any additional information to convince other authorities that a laboratory leak was possible.
The most important part of the missing data is clinical virus samples from early cases in China, according to intelligence officials.
Neither American intelligence officers nor scientists around the world have samples of the virus from the earliest known cases. These include samples from a group of three Wuhan lab workers who were hospitalized last January with flu-like symptoms.
Obtaining virus samples from early cases in China could help identify “a site of interest” or “occupational exposure,” the released report said.
Some American officials believe China has more access to such samples than it was willing to share. The reluctance to work together has aroused suspicion among some analysts.
American intelligence officials don’t believe the Chinese government necessarily knows how the virus originated, but some believe Beijing officials are concerned about what a real investigation would reveal and have deterred the World Health Organization and others from a full investigation.
“These measures partly reflect the Chinese government’s uncertainty as to where an investigation could lead, as well as its frustration that the international community is using the issue to put political pressure on China,” the released report said.
Examining the theory that the virus was accidentally created in the laboratory has worried some people, especially those who consider the allegation to be racist.
Sonal Shah, the president of the Asian American Foundation, questioned the intelligence agency’s entire efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic, saying it could increase the risk of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders.
“While today’s government report does not contain clear conclusions, it is likely to lead to misinformation,” she said.
Others have defended the test, saying that none of the theories are inherently racist. They have argued that a clearer understanding of the origins of the pandemic can help prevent a future global health crisis.
Mr Biden said the United States would continue to work with other nations and the World Health Organization to get access to more information from China.
“We need to have a full and transparent account of this global tragedy,” he said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”
Adam Goldman contributed to the coverage.