WASHINGTON — The latest U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19 is inconclusive, according to an official familiar with it — an outcome that will do little to quell debate about whether the virus spread to humans from animals or leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
President Joe Biden received the report this week after asking for a deeper examination of the pandemic’s origins. He was briefed, and the White House is preparing to release an unclassified version in the coming days, officials said.
The report doesn’t point squarely to one source as the likely origin of the outbreak, echoing previous intelligence assessments, one of the officials said.
The previous assessment prepared for Biden, the major findings of which he made public in May, acknowledged divisions over whether the virus was naturally transmitted from animals to humans — the prevailing theory of scientists — or whether it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a claim popular with Republicans that hasn’t been ruled out by experts. The Washington Post earlier reported that the latest report is inconclusive.
In not ruling out a lab leak, the new report may stoke tensions between Washington and Beijing, ahead of a potential meeting between Biden and President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit this fall.
Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the lab was the source of the outbreak, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in May that Biden was engaging in “political manipulation” by ordering the latest report.
Biden made the pandemic response the top focus of the first months of his presidency, but he has grappled with a fresh surge of cases driven by the delta variant spreading rapidly among those who haven’t been vaccinated.
A research paper published in June in the online journal Scientific Reports contains data and photographic evidence supporting the theory that the outbreak stemmed from infected wild animals. It reported that several animals that can be hosts to coronaviruses were sold for years in shops across the city, including a now infamous wildlife market that has been linked to the outbreak.
Biden has said that the U.S. was looking into a potential “accident” at the lab, an implicit rejection of unsubstantiated assertions that China may have intentionally set the virus loose.
Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, said in a June interview with Yahoo News that the two competing theories remains a subject of debate and acknowledged there may be no firm conclusion. “We’re hoping to find a smoking gun, but it might not happen,” she said.
A World Health Organization report earlier this year said the most likely origin was that the virus spread to humans from bats through an unspecified intermediary animal. The White House criticized the report as incomplete and lacking crucial data, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it wasn’t “extensive enough.”
Anthony Fauci, one of the faces of the U.S. pandemic response and an adviser to Biden, reiterated Wednesday that he believed it was unlikely that the virus came from a lab. He also warned that uncertainty may persist, noting that the origin of the 2014 Ebola outbreak still isn’t fully understood.
Republicans have focused on the lab leak theory. Some officials in former President Donald Trump’s administration, including his secretary of state, Michael Pompeo, and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, have said evidence suggested a leak from the lab.
Story by Jennifer Jacobs and Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg News