August 31, 2021 | Policy Brief

Intelligence Community Report on COVID-19 Origins Highlights Biden’s Failed Policy

August 31, 2021 | Policy Brief

Intelligence Community Report on COVID-19 Origins Highlights Biden’s Failed Policy

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) on Friday released an unclassified version of its findings regarding the origins of COVID-19, noting its inability to reach definitive conclusions without Chinese cooperation. The report, along with President Joe Biden’s subsequent statement pressing China for more information, show that his administration still lacks a plan to compel Beijing’s cooperation with the origins probe.

Biden noted in May that there are two “likely” origin scenarios: The virus emerged either “from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.” At that time, two IC agencies — with either low or moderate confidence — supported the former theory and one the latter. Most IC elements said there was not enough information to make a determination.

The new report provides more detail on these judgements. With low confidence, four IC elements and the National Intelligence Council support the theory positing human contact with an infected animal. They “give weight to China’s officials’ lack of foreknowledge, the numerous vectors for natural exposure, and other factors.”

One IC element assessed with moderate confidence that “the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These analysts give weight to the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses.” Three other IC elements were unable to decide on either theory without additional information.

While the IC findings highlight the paucity of definitive information, the assessment nonetheless poses a stark contrast with the World Health Organization’s flawed joint report with China, issued in March, which called the lab-origin theory “extremely unlikely.”

The IC report states that “initial small-scale exposure” probably started the pandemic no later than November 2019. It is unclear why the IC chose that date, but a State Department fact sheet issued just before Biden took office noted that “several researchers inside the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” The Wall Street Journal reported in May that three researchers became sick in November 2019.

IC agencies emphasized that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies concluded with low confidence that it was not genetically engineered, although two noted there is not enough information to make that assessment.

According to the IC report, “China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.” By referring to “China’s officials” rather than Wuhan lab officials, the IC may be suggesting that lab personnel did have foreknowledge of the virus.

Another important question pertains to when Chinese officials did learn of the virus: Was it when initial public reports emerged in late December 2019, or earlier?

The IC report highlights a significant problem for Biden: “China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19.” Accordingly, Biden responded to the IC assessment by declaring, “The world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them. Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities to the rest of the world.” But Beijing has rejected similar calls and increased its disinformation campaign, claiming the virus was created by the United States.

It appears Biden has no plan to compel China’s cooperation beyond appealing to Beijing’s conscience. He has not indicated whether his administration would employ sanctions or other coercive measures if China remains intransigent. Yet without tangible pressure, Beijing will likely remain uncooperative. Biden needs to change course if he wants to determine the origins of this deadly global pandemic.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. For more analysis from Anthony and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony on Twitter @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

China COVID-19