Biden orders closer review of Covid origins as U.S. intel weighs Wuhan lab leak theory

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on February 3, 2021.
Hector Retamal | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he has ordered a closer intelligence review of what he said were two equally plausible scenarios of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden revealed that earlier this year he tasked the intelligence community with preparing “a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of Covid-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”

“As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has ‘coalesced around two likely scenarios’ but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question,” Biden said in a statement.

“Here is their current position: ‘while two elements in the IC leans toward the [human contact] scenario and one leans more toward the [lab leak scenario] – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” Biden said.

Biden delivered the intelligence assessment using the unique style with which it presents intelligence to a sitting president. This includes explaining when different agencies within the community disagree, and using a scale, low-moderate-high, to measure the level of confidence they have in the accuracy of their assessment.

Biden issued the new directives as the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, still officially unknown, come under increasing scrutiny.

The hypothesis that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory, while initially dismissed by some as a conspiracy theory, has in recent months gained more mainstream traction.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said in Senate testimony that a lab-leak origin “certainly” was “one possibility.”

The CDC’s website currently says that while the exact source of the outbreak is unknown, “we know that it originally came from an animal, likely a bat.”

Covid-19 was discovered near the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has studied coronaviruses in the past, is at the center of the turmoil about the origins of the deadly pandemic, which has killed almost 3.5 million people.

The scrutiny on that lab ramped up this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers there had been sick with Covid-like symptoms in November 2019, shortly before the first cases of the virus were reported. The newspaper cited a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.

White House officials told reporters Tuesday that China hasn’t been “completely transparent” in the global investigation into the origins of Covid-19, and that a full investigation is needed to determine whether the virus came from nature or a lab.

“We need to get to the bottom of this, whatever the answer may be,” White House senior Covid advisor Andy Slavitt told reporters Tuesday. “We need a completely transparent process from China, we need the WHO to assist in that matter, and we don’t feel like we have that now.”

The World Health Organization said in March that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus was introduced to humans through an accidental lab leak. But that report was heavily criticized by scientists who said the WHO gave the possibility of a lab accident short shrift compared with a natural-origin scenario.

“The report lacks crucial data, information, and access. It represents a partial and incomplete picture,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time when asked about WHO’s stance on Covid’s origins.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which leads the nation’s 18 intelligence agencies, did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

—- CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Amanda Macias contributed to this story.