Updated 49 minutes ago
US President Joe Biden today ordered US intelligence agencies to inform him in the next three months whether the Covid-19 virus first appeared in China from an animal source or from a laboratory accident.
Biden said in a statement issued by the White House that agencies should «redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to reaching a final conclusion, and to inform me of that within 90 days.»
According to Biden, agencies are currently split over two potential sources of the virus that has swept the planet over the past year, killing more than 3.4 million people – a number experts say is undoubtedly an understatement.
Biden’s order signals an escalation in the mounting debate about how the virus first emerged – through contact with animals at a market in Wuhan, China, or by releasing the coronavirus from a very secure research lab in the same city.
The answer has huge implications for both China, which says it is not responsible for the epidemic, and the United States.
Representative Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, called on China to be forthcoming and to avoid «premature or politically motivated conclusions.»
«Beijing’s continued obstruction of a comprehensive and transparent examination of relevant facts and data about the source of the Coronavirus can only delay the vital work necessary to help the world prepare better before the next potential pandemic,» Schiff said.
However, I am sure that [intelligence community] Other elements of our government will continue to pursue all potential leads and provide an updated evidence-based result in line with the president’s requirements for a period of 90 days. «
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) previously funded research for the bat coronavirus in Wuhan, but denied support for «job gain» experiments that involve modifying the virus so that it becomes more transmissible to humans.
The grant was terminated last year by the administration of former President Donald Trump.
Opposition Republicans have used the laboratory theory to attack leading American scientists, including Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Beijing, which vehemently denies the claims.
Biden said in March he requested a report on the origins of the virus, including «whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.»
He said: «As of today, the American intelligence services gathered around two possible scenarios, but did not reach a final conclusion on this issue.»
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre told reporters that the intelligence community informed Biden of their assessment about a month ago, but that it was classified information so far.
In response to a question about the government’s position on whether the virus was deliberately designed to be a biological weapon, she said: «We have not ruled out anything yet.»
Lab theory is gaining traction
The laboratory leak theory angered China, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian launched on Wednesday and accused Washington of «spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation».
Nevertheless, the idea is gaining traction in the United States, where it was initially fueled by Trump and his aides and dismissed by many as a political talking point.
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Citing a US intelligence report, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that three from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with a seasonal illness in November 2019, a month before Beijing revealed a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia.
The natural origin hypothesis states that the virus appeared in bats and then transmitted to humans, most likely via an intermediary species.
This theory was widely accepted at the start of the epidemic, but over time, scientists have not found a virus in bats or any other animal that matches the genetic signature of SARS-CoV-2.
This was not the case for SARS and MERS, the early coronaviruses that spread to humans and were traced back to civets and camels relatively quickly.
The United States and other countries have called for a more in-depth investigation into the origins of the epidemic, after a report prepared by an international team sent by the World Health Organization to China earlier this year proved inconclusive.
There are also growing calls from independent scholars for more transparency.
A group of researchers from the best American universities wrote in a letter published by the leading Science magazine in mid-May: «We must take hypotheses about natural and laboratory implications very seriously until we have adequate data.»
© Agence France-Presse 2021
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