President Biden told the intelligence community Wednesday to “redouble” efforts to determine how the coronavirus originated, saying data collected so far falls short of offering the U.S. and its partners a definitive answer.
He wants a report in three months.
The presidential statement suggests a pivot to intelligence-centered efforts after officials for months said they would work with the World Health Organization to press China for more details on whether the virus occurred naturally or escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
Mr. Biden said he wouldn’t shut out allies, however.
“The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence,” Mr. Biden said.
Whether the virus that killed more than 590,000 people in the U.S. resulted from natural events in the animal kingdom or something more nefarious has been gaining more attention, especially as the worst of the pandemic subsides in the U.S. amid the vaccine rollout.
Former President Donald Trump and GOP allies repeatedly pointed to the possibility of a Chinese lab leak but were often ridiculed as conspiracy theorists. Mr. Trump said the WHO was too weak on China to get a real answer.
The notion of a lab mishap has gained mainstream credence of late, particularly after reports researchers at a Wuhan virology lab got so sick in November 2019 they were hospitalized.
Global scientists say the communist government in Beijing has been the main impediment to efforts, though Mr. Biden appeared to fault his predecessor’s actions at the outset of the pandemic.
“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” he said. “Nevertheless, shortly after I became president, in March, I had my national security adviser task the Intelligence Community to prepare 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.”
He said he received a report this month that lends moderate credence to both the animal scenario and lab explanation, but “the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.
“I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” he said.
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre argued the focus on U.S. intelligence wasn’t a dramatic shift in the administration’s approach. She said they will continue to support the WHO’s efforts.
“This is something that has been ongoing. We have been pretty vocal with the WHO these past several months,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
She did not outline any penalties for China if it doesn’t cooperate with the probe, or if the investigation uncovers something ugly, saying the administration will see how the next 90 days go.
Ms. Jean-Pierre also said a firm conclusion would help the world prepare “for the next pandemic and the next one.”