U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over origins of COVID-19 after review

U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over the origins of the coronavirus but believe Chinese leaders were unaware of the virus before the pandemic began, according to the results released Friday of a review ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden.

According to an unclassified summary, four members of the US intelligence community claim with low confidence that the virus was initially transmitted from an animal to a human. A fifth intelligence agency believes with moderate confidence that the first human infection was linked to a laboratory. Analysts do not believe the virus was developed as a biological weapon.

China’s refusal to fully cooperate with US and international investigations into the virus has hampered examinations of the virus’s origins. The director of national intelligence said on Friday that China “continues to obstruct the global investigation, resist information sharing and blame other countries, including the United States.”

The cause of the coronavirus remains an urgent public health and safety problem around the world.

In the United States, many conservatives have accused Chinese scientists of developing COVID-19 in the lab and letting it leak. The scientific consensus remains that the virus most likely migrated from animals in what is called zoonotic transmission.

A COVID-19 test sign is displayed at Los Angeles International Airport. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Investigation anger China

China’s Foreign Ministry attacked the US investigation ahead of the report’s release. Fu Cong, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a briefing for foreign reporters that “China scapegoat cannot whitewash the United States.”

“If they want to baselessly accuse China, they had better be prepared to accept China’s counterattack,” he said.

Biden in May ordered a 90-day review of what the White House said was an early discovery leading to “two likely scenarios”: animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak. The White House then said that two agencies in the 18-member intelligence community were leaning towards the hypothesis of transmission in the wild and another agency leaned towards a laboratory leak.

On Friday, the office of the director of national intelligence did not identify which agencies supported either hypothesis. But he noted some of the same obstacles that the World Health Organization and scientists around the world face: a lack of clinical samples and data from the first cases of COVID-19. Beijing’s cooperation would most likely be needed to make further progress, the office said.

During the review, intelligence agencies consulted with allied nations and experts outside the government. An epidemiologist has been integrated into the National Intelligence Council, a group of seasoned experts who consult with the head of the intelligence community.

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