Biden to U.S. intelligence: Report to me in 90 days on whether the virus leaked from a lab

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Even newsier than the deadline he sets here is the revelation that the U.S. intel community is formally undecided on whether it’s more likely that COVID escaped from a lab or that it leaped from an animal to a human being.

Which means the lab-leak theory is now as mainstream as mainstream gets. And we should probably thank CNN for that, as it seems like more than a coincidence that the president is showing how serious he is about discovering the origins of the virus on the same day CNN dropped this headline on him.

Anyway, let’s be realistic. Barring the emergence of indisputable evidence, how likely is it that U.S. intelligence will embrace the lab-accident hypothesis knowing what it would mean for relations with China?

Back in early 2020, when COVID-19 emerged, I called for the CDC to get access to China to learn about the virus so we could fight it more effectively. The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, shortly after I became President, in March, I had my National Security Advisor 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. I received that report earlier this month, and asked for additional follow-up. As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. Here is their current position: “while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – 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. As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.

The most we can hope for, I think, is for the final report to stick with the current conclusion, that the two theories are equally likely. Certainly China’s not going to permit any evidence-gathering that might point to a disaster at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. So even if U.S. intel wanted to endorse the lab-leak theory, how could it support that conclusion?

And without very hard evidence, why would it undertake a course of action that would put the entire western world in the position of blaming China, rather than a zoonotic act of God, for having killed more than three million people through its own negligence?

It’s not just the CNN story about Biden’s administration having killed the Trump/Pompeo probe into the virus’s origins that has the White House scrambling. Apparently China told the WHO yesterday “that it considered the investigation in its country to be complete and said attention should now turn to other countries.” (Uh, what other countries?) The head of the WHO had said previously that the lab-leak theory required further study by its scientists; China’s now telling him that that won’t be happening. Biden has no choice, then, but to task U.S. intelligence to find out what it can.

On top of that, Democrats in Congress are putting pressure on him to take the lab-leak theory seriously, as they’re doubtless getting an earful from constituents suddenly galvanized by the possibility that Chinese incompetence may have unleashed COVID on the world. We already know that China covered up critical details about the virus after it first began spreading in late 2019, most notably the fact that human-to-human transmission was happening. If there’s an even more sinister cover-up behind that one, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is guilty of negligence far more lethal than what happened at Chernobyl, then Biden and the Dems need to make very sure that American voters don’t see them as complicit in that cover-up in any way. Result: Today’s presidential statement demanding an update in 90 days.

The question of the week in the pundit class, and not just righty pundits either, is how the lab-leak theory ended up ghettoized for so long. Charles Cooke offers one explanation:

On closer inspection, though, the reason for this investment comes clearly into view: that, like the people who openly root for a shooter to be of a particular color or political persuasion, Rubin and Co. believe that the answer to the question, “Where did the virus originate?” is much less important than the answer to the question, “What will Americans make of the answer to the question, ‘Where did the virus originate?’” Or, put another way: What has really mattered to those who have been scornful of the “lab leak” theory was not the underlying scientific question of whether it is true, but what the people they dislike might think and say as a result of its being discovered to be true.

As if to prove Cooke’s point, here’s what one of the New York Times’s top science writers tweeted this afternoon before quietly deleting it:

Spinning or suppressing information for fear of what Americans might do with it has been an animating impulse of the pandemic since its earliest days, back when Fauci and other experts were telling the “noble lie” that masks didn’t work lest the public snap up the existing supply and leave health-care workers with nothing. But there are other elements to why the lab-leak theory was given short shrift. Having it so closely associated with Trump hurt its credibility, as he was famously anti-China before the pandemic and was prone to pushing dubious ideas about COVID, like hydroxychloroquine as a possible miracle cure or his claim early on that the virus would disappear on its own. Democrats’ investment in their image as the Party Of Science also led them to tune out theories that cut against the grain of scientific consensus at the time, which was that the virus likely leaped from an animal to a person. And probably the sheer terror of imagining that a global pandemic that’s claimed millions could have begun with carelessness in a lab by a single person led some to favor an “act of God” explanation in which fate, not negligence, transferred the virus from a bat to a human. At a moment of desperate anxiety and uncertainty, people wanted to believe that scientists especially knew what they’re doing. Oh well.

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Jazz Shaw 8:01 PM on December 06, 2022