Biden sets 90-day deadline for more details on coronavirus origins

White house press secretary jen psaki
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden wants answers about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and has given the US intelligence community three months to track down that information.

In a Wednesday press conference, Biden revealed that he had asked the intelligence community to prepare a report on whether the coronavirus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a Chinese laboratory accident in March. The results of that report, Biden said, don’t offer enough information to fully assess whether either theory is “more likely than the other.”

So the president is asking the report authors 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.”

International experts, too, have been unable to parse out the pandemic’s source.

Following a month-long investigation in Wuhan, a World Health Organization team determined it’s “most likely” that the virus jumped naturally from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, likely wildlife in southern China. But the group found no definitive proof of that. Nor could it rule out a lab leak. Even the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in March that he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”

In a video message to the WHO on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra urged that a second investigation be launched “with terms of reference that are transparent” and “science-based.”

Becerra also demanded that international experts be granted “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”

Covid researchers wuhan
A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

‘We don’t 100% know the answer’

Tedros has also called for further scrutiny into the coronavirus’s origin.

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said in March. Tedros added that members of the international WHO team who traveled to China “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data.”

WHO investigators weren’t given access to raw patient data and blood samples, and weren’t able to conduct a full audit of labs in Wuhan where staff had been working on coronaviruses prior to the start of the pandemic.

In light of that, Andy Slavitt, senior coronavirus advisor to the White House, stressed that a second investigation is a “critical priority” for the Biden administration.

“It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this and we need a completely transparent process from China,” Slavitt said Tuesday.

The US’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also expressed support for another probe.

“Many of my colleagues are very much in favor of what the WHO said, that they want to go back again and take another look in there and see what was going on in that lab,” Fauci told the Senate in a hearing May 11.

During a White House coronavirus task force press conference on Tuesday, Fauci said scientists can’t confirm whether the coronavirus first spilled over from animals to people.

“As I’ve said many times, many of us feel that it is more likely that this is a natural occurrence,” Fauci said. “But we don’t know 100% the answer to that. And since this is a question that keeps being asked, we feel strongly – all of us – that we should continue with the investigation and go to the next phase of the investigation that the WHO has done.”

Some experts say the lab-leak theory remains viable

Wuhan institute of virology
Guards stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

Authorities reported the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan in late December 2019, though evidence suggests the coronavirus was likely circulating in the city and surrounding areas for months before then.

The coincidence of a new emerging infectious disease cropping up in the same city as a high-level biosafety facility like the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where staff work with dangerous pathogens, has undergirded a theory that the coronavirus escaped from a lab.

The calls from Biden and his officials come amid revived interest in the lab-leak theory from experts around the globe. Last week, 18 scientists from the US, UK, Canada, and Switzerland published a letter saying they thought the lab-leak theory remained viable.

When asked by reporters about the lab-leak theory, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that Biden is committed to an independent investigation into the source of the virus.

“He believes the Chinese need to do more to put forward data, to be more transparent,” Psaki said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “And in the second phase of this effort, he’s certainly hopeful that will be the case. And he believes that every theory should be explored through that process but that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions before that data and that information is made available.”

Three out of every four emerging infectious diseases come to us from other species, including other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. Cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola and the Nipah virus. While the WHO has yet to pinpoint a bat population or intermediary animal species that may have passed the new coronavirus onto humans, it’s unlikely that identification will happen in the next 90 days.

It took researchers nearly three years after the first SARS infection to trace the virus back to cat-like civets being sold in Chinese markets. It took at least another decade to tentatively identify what Chinese bat population harbored a closely-related coronavirus that could’ve been behind the SARS pandemic.