U.S. intelligence agencies disagree with the findings of a recent joint World Health Organization-Chinese government probe that dismissed the theory that the COVID-19 virus outbreak could have resulted from an accidental escape from a Chinese laboratory, officials told Congress on Thursday.
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence and CIA Director William Burns told the House Intelligence Committee the WHO-China report made public last month is not the view of intelligence agencies studying the origin of the pandemic.
“We do not make the assessment that the WHO report made that it’s … extremely unlikely,” Ms. Haines said, “and that’s not our assessment.”
A WHO team of international experts, under tight Chinese government supervision, two months ago visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a high security laboratory where scientists studied bat coronaviruses similar to the virus behind COVID-19.
Chinese researchers have boasted of uncovering 2,000 new viruses in the past decade, including many viruses from bats, but the WHO team concluded it is “extremely unlikely” the virus leaked from the lab, citing its safety protocols. Wuhan was the site of the first major cluster of COVID-19 cases.
China’s government and the WHO team said the most likely source for the virus was an infected animal that came in contact with a human, triggering the deadly disease outbreak in December 2019.
China also has spread disinformation that the virus was brought to China by the U.S. Army and that it was secretly developed as U.S. military laboratory. Officials at Thursday’s Capitol Hill hearing said there is no doubt the virus began in China.
Ms. Haines said U.S. intelligence agencies can’t say exactly where, when and how the global pandemic began. In Senate testimony Wednesday, she for the first time expressed the view that the laboratory origin of the virus, through an accident or poor security, is no longer viewed as a conspiracy theory, as many scientists, media outlets and the Chinese government had asserted for over a year.
She said U.S. analysts are focused on two scenarios: “one of them is that it was a laboratory accident, and the other is that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals.”
The assessment is based on intelligence and not on Chinese government statements, she added.
Mr. Burns, the CIA director, said U.S. intelligence agencies are still trying to determine the virus’s origin.
“Across the intelligence community, we’re working very, very hard with our own independent resources to try to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
Mr. Burns said his analysts agreed with the consensus of the scientific community that the virus does not appear to be man-made in a laboratory, while Ms. Haines also said there are signs China is attempting to influence the WHO investigation.
FBI Director Christopher Wray disclosed during the hearing that Bureau officials have joined in the search to determine the origin of the outbreak, but that the question of China’s response should be handled “at the diplomatic level.”
Ms. Haines, the DNI, said U.S. intelligence agencies have hired additional people to work on how to respond to global disease outbreaks and have set up a program to focus on “biothreats.”