(CNN) – US President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he ordered the intelligence community to redouble its efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic of covid-19 and inform you on its progress in 90 days.
The announcement comes after a US intelligence report discovered that several investigators from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China They fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized, a new detail that prompted renewed public pressure on Biden to delve into the origin of the virus.
“As part of that report, I asked for additional research areas that might be needed, including specific questions for China. I also requested that this effort include the work of our national laboratories and other agencies of our government to augment the efforts of the intelligence community. And I have asked the intelligence community to keep Congress fully informed of their work, ”Biden said in a statement.
“The fact that our inspectors were not on the ground in those first months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” he added.
Biden said in the statement that in March he ordered his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to commission the intelligence community to prepare a report on the most up-to-date analysis of the origins of the covid-19 pandemic, including whether the The virus arose from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. Biden said he received that report earlier this month and asked for additional follow-up.
“To this day, the US intelligence community has ‘rallied around two likely scenarios’ but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this issue. Here’s his current position: ‘While two elements in the intelligence community lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter, each with low or moderate confidence, most elements do not believe that there is enough information to assess which one is more likely than the other, ‘”Biden said in the statement.
That’s essentially the same public opinion that the intelligence community has held for more than a year on the origins of COVID-19, although Wednesday’s statement makes clear that these two scenarios are “likely” and not just being investigated. CNN reported in April 2020 that the intelligence community was investigating whether the new coronavirus spread from a Chinese laboratory rather than a market in Wuhan, China. The Chinese government has maintained that the virus originated and spread naturally.
A number of factors influenced Biden’s decision to entrust his intelligence community with a deeper dive into the origins of COVID-19, including the idea that the initial report ordered in March did not go far enough to delve into the subject. , according to a source familiar with the decision.
Biden called Wednesday’s statement and the further review compelling in the public interest given the scale of the devastation caused by the pandemic, the source said.
There was also clear public pressure on the administration to address the issue after the Wall Street Journal and CNN will report recently on new data underscoring the plausibility of the lab theory, as well as new comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, who acknowledged that he and other scientists may have been too strict in earlier public statements dismissing that possibility.
Pressure from Congress has also increased.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Wednesday called for “clear answers” from the intelligence community on the origins of the coronavirus, saying her panel would explore any additional options that could take.
Also Wednesday, legislation endorsed by Republican Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana was passed by unanimous consent to require the Biden administration, specifically Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, to declassify any intelligence related to the links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, Haines testified that US intelligence agencies still do not know “exactly where, when or how the covid-19 virus was initially transmitted” in China, but remain focused on two main theories: “that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident. ‘
Two sources told CNN on Sunday that the assessment has not changed.
Biden said the United States will work with its allies to continue pressuring China “to engage in a comprehensive, transparent and evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.”
When asked during a briefing at the White House if the announcement was related to the recent US intelligence report on the investigators’ illness, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that the issue is “something the president has been working on for a long time.”
“We have been saying for a long time that China needed to provide more access to the laboratory, cooperate more fully with scientific researchers and we do not believe that they have met that standard,” Jean-Pierre told CNN.
And he added: “Getting to the bottom of the origin of this pandemic will help us understand how to prepare for the next pandemic and the next.”
CNN reported Tuesday that Biden’s team suspended a State Department effort launched at the end of the Trump administration to show that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory over concerns about the quality of its work, according to three sources familiar with it. the decision.
The decision to suspend the investigation, which was made primarily by the State Department’s arms control and verification office, was made after Biden officials were briefed on the team’s preliminary findings in February and March this year. year, said a State Department spokesman.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report intelligence information regarding previous hospitalizations.
That suspended State Department investigation is separate from the intelligence community investigation, which has never been stopped. US intelligence agencies have continued to examine whether the virus arose naturally from human contact with infected animals or whether it could have been the result of a laboratory accident.
The World Health Organization conducted an investigation into the origins of the pandemic and concluded in a report that the risk of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where research on the coronavirus in bats was being carried out, was’ extremely under”.
The report says that “there were no reports of respiratory diseases compatible with covid-19 during the weeks / months before December 2019, and there was no serological evidence of infection in workers through specific serological tests for SARS-CoV-2. ».
But the WHO research was criticized by the United States, United Kingdom and other governments for its limited access to “complete original samples and data.” The organization was also accused of being too deferential to China during the course of the study. The study was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists, several of them from state institutions.
When the WHO report was released in March, the organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement that the document was the beginning, not the end, of the investigation into the source of the virus.
“We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned,” the WHO director-general said in a statement.
As officials in the Biden administration worked on the next steps to take, it had become extremely clear through public statements, as recently as Tuesday at the World Health Assembly meeting, that the Chinese government had no intention to participate in the second phase of the WHO investigation.
While it made no sense for the Chinese to reverse course and be transparent, Biden’s public comments served to spur greater interest within the administration to unilaterally take additional steps to investigate the origins of the virus.
The president has directed agencies and national laboratories to work closely with the intelligence community in its 90-day deep dive, even as they continue to push for a more thorough investigation by the WHO.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood, Katie Bo Williams, Ali Zaslav, Manu Raju, Ted Barrett, and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.