Asia

US intelligence study inconclusive on Covid origins, according to reports

A classified US intelligence report delivered to the White House was inconclusive on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, in part due to a lack of information from China, according to US media reports.

The assessment received on Tuesday, which was ordered by President Joe Biden 90 days ago, was unable to definitively conclude whether the virus that first emerged in central China had jumped to humans via animals or escaped a highly secure research facility in Wuhan, two US officials familiar with the matter told the Washington Post.

They said parts of the report could be declassified in the coming days.

Responding to reports, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, on Wednesday criticised Washington for “politicising” the issue of Covid origin-tracing.

“The United States says it lacks information from China,” Wang told a press briefing, according to China News service, a state-owned newswire. “I can tell the United States that this is just an excuse to cover up the failure of its intelligence in origin tracing.”

Wang said the report was political and therefore it would not draw any scientific conclusion, “and would only disturb and damage the international effort in finding the origin of the virus and the global cooperation against Covid-19.”

The debate over the origins of the virus that has killed more than 4 million people and paralysed economies worldwide has become increasingly contentious.

When Biden assigned the investigation, he said US intelligence agencies were split over the two likely scenarios – animals or lab.

The former president Donald Trump and his aides had helped fuel the lab-leak theory amid intense criticism over their administration’s handling of the world’s biggest outbreak, pointing the finger at Beijing, which strongly denies the hypothesis.

Despite Biden’s directive that the intelligence community “redouble their efforts” to untangle the origin debate, the 90-day review brought them no closer to consensus, the officials told the Post.

Part of the problem is a lack of detailed information from China, according to the Wall Street Journal. “If China’s not going to give access to certain datasets, you’re never really going to know,” an official told the WSJ on condition of anonymity since the report is not public.

Beijing has rejected calls from the US and other countries for a renewed origin investigation after a heavily politicised visit by a World Health Organization team in January also proved inconclusive and faced criticism for lacking transparency and access.

In recent weeks, China has been increasing its criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the origin-tracing issue. On 10 August, the Global Times quoted an unnamed insider as saying that the real purpose of the administration’s 90-day investigation was to “exhaust China’s diplomatic resource”.

On Tuesday, Chen Xu, China’s permanent representative to the UN at Geneva, wrote to the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, alleging that the labs of Fort Detrick and University of North Carolina in the US should be the subject of investigation instead.

At the outset of the pandemic, the natural origin hypothesis – that the virus emerged in bats then passed to humans, probably via an intermediary species – was widely accepted. But as time has passed, scientists have not found a virus in either bats or another animal that matches the genetic signature of Sars-CoV-2.

Frustrated with the progress, experts are increasingly willing to consider the theory that the virus may have leaked out of a lab conducting bat coronavirus research in Wuhan, an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy propagated by the US far right.

Ghebreyesus, has accepted the global health body’s initial investigation into Wuhan’s virology labs did not go far enough.

But the WHO’s call last month for the investigation’s second stage to include audits of the labs infuriated Beijing. The vice-minister of health, Zeng Yixin, said the plan showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science”.

 

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