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Biden orders review of COVID-19 origins as lab leak theory debated

Published: Updated:

President Joe Biden ordered aides to find answers to the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19, saying on Wednesday that US intelligence agencies are pursuing rival theories potentially including the possibility of a laboratory accident in China.

Intelligence agencies are considering two likely scenarios but still lack strong confidence in their conclusions and are hotly debating which is more probable, Biden said.

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The conclusions were detailed in a report to Biden, who asked his team in March to detail whether the novel coronavirus “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” according to the president’s written statement.

Biden’s unusual public disclosure about private and inconclusive U.S. intelligence assessments revealed a debate raging within his administration over where the novel coronavirus originated. It also lent credence to a theory that the virus may have emerged from a Chinese research laboratory instead of in nature.

China’s embassy in the United States said late on Thursday that politicizing the issue would hamper investigations into the origins of COVID-19.

China supports “a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world,” the embassy said in remarks attributed to a spokesperson, posted on its website.

The pandemic has killed more than 3 million people worldwide and battered the global economy because of lockdowns and other restrictions to slow its spread. The origin of the virus remains contested among experts. The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

In a report issued in March and written jointly with Chinese scientists, a World Health Organization-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”