Biden given inconclusive US intelligence report on Covid-19 origins

People walk along a street in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province, in February 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A classified US intelligence report delivered to the White House on Tuesday (Aug 25) was inconclusive on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, in part due to a lack of information from China, according to US media reports.

The assessment, ordered by President Joe Biden 90 days ago, was unable to definitively conclude whether the virus that first emerged in central China had jumped to humans via animals or had escaped a highly secure research facility in Wuhan, two US officials familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

They said parts of the report could be declassified in the coming days.

The debate over the origins of the virus that has killed more than four million people and paralysed economies worldwide has become increasingly contentious.

When Biden assigned the investigation, he said US intelligence agencies were split over the "two likely scenarios" - animals or laboratory.

Former president Donald Trump and his aides had helped fuel the lab-leak theory, using it to deflect blame for their administration's handling of the world's biggest outbreak and instead finger-point at Beijing, which strongly denies the hypothesis.

China on Wednesday urged the WHO to visit the US military biolab Fort Detrick, after rejecting the health organisation's calls for a second stage of the Covid-19 origins probe focusing on Chinese laboratories last month.

"If (the United States) want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept a counter-attack from China," Fu Cong, head of the foreign ministry's arms control department, told reporters.

"If the US thinks China is guilty, they need to come up with evidence to prove that China is guilty. You don't blame a victim for not providing information to incriminate himself."


WHO's emergencies director Mike Ryan later called the Chinese comments a "contradiction", as Beijing has fiercely pushed back against the lab-leak theory.

"I find that difficult to understand but am very willing to engage with our Chinese colleagues to understand what exactly they mean by that statement," Ryan told reporters.

Despite Biden's directive that the intelligence community "redouble their efforts" to untangle the origin debate, the 90-day review brought them no closer to consensus, the officials told the Post.

Beijing has rejected calls from the United States and other countries for a renewed origin probe after a heavily politicised visit by a World Health Organisation team in January also proved inconclusive, and faced criticism for lacking transparency and access.

Pressure has, meanwhile, increased to evaluate the lab-leak theory more thoroughly.

At the outset of the pandemic, the natural origin hypothesis - that the virus emerged in bats and then passed to humans, likely via an intermediary species - was widely accepted. But as time has worn on, scientists have not found a virus in either bats or another animal that matches the genetic signature of Sars-CoV-2.

In the face of China's reluctance to open up to outside investigators, experts are increasingly open to considering the theory that the virus might have leaked out of a lab conducting bat coronavirus research in Wuhan, an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy propagated by the US far-right.

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