The U.S. intelligence community does not believe it can resolve a debate over whether a Chinese laboratory incident was the source of COVID-19 without more information, U.S. officials said in a declassified summary on Friday.
U.S. officials said only China can help solve questions about the true origins of the virus that has now killed 4.6 million people worldwide. “China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19,” they said.
President Joe Biden, who received a classified report earlier this week summarizing the investigation he had ordered, said Washington and its allies will continue to press the Chinese government for answers.
“Critical information about the origins of this pandemic exists in the People’s Republic of China, yet from the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it,” Biden said in a statement after the summary was released.
The summary, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was set to worsen discord between Beijing and Washington at a time when the countries’ ties are at their lowest point in decades. In the United States, activists worried the investigation could also encourage violence against Asian Americans.
Reuters earlier reported that administration officials did not expect the analysis to settle debate about the virus’ origin.
China has ridiculed a theory that COVID-19 escaped from the state virology lab in Wuhan and pushed fringe theories including that the virus slipped out of a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 2019.
The U.S. report revealed new detail about the extent of the disagreement within the Biden administration over the so-called lab leak theory.
Several organizations within the sprawling U.S. intelligence community thought the novel coronavirus emerged from “natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus,” according to the summary.
But they had only “low confidence” in that conclusion, the summary said. Other groups were not able to come to any firm opinion at all on the origins.
One intelligence community segment, however, developed “moderate confidence” that the first human infection with COVID was likely due to a “laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology” in China.
A team led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February dismissed that theory. But their March report, which was written jointly with Chinese scientists, has been faulted for using insufficient evidence to dismiss the theory.
The new U.S. report concluded that analysts would not be able to provide “a more definitive explanation” without new information from China, such as clinical samples and epidemiological data about the earliest cases.
Initially, U.S. spy agencies strongly favored the explanation that the virus originated in nature. But people familiar with intelligence reporting have said there has been little corroboration over recent months that the virus had spread widely and naturally among wild animals.
“While this review has concluded, our efforts to understand the origins of this pandemic will not rest,” Biden said. “We will do everything we can to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world, so that we can take every necessary precaution to prevent it from happening again.”
The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said the group has not ruled out any hypothesis. The Geneva-based organization is set to impanel a new committee to develop next steps on studying the virus SARS-CoV-2.
But epidemiological experts said the window was closing for any useful data to be collected, particularly from people infected by the disease in 2019, when the virus likely first emerged.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Eric Beech and Tim Ahmann in Washington Editing by Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis)