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Why the US is taking a second look at the ‘lab leak’ theory about COVID-19

Where did COVID-19 come from? In the midst of renewed questions about the novel coronavirus' origins, President Joe Biden has directed U.S. intelligence to determine if the virus jumped from animals to humans, or somehow escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. Amna Nawaz and Nick Schifrin explore the possibilities and report what we know so far.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where did COVID-19 come from? At the moment, it raises more questions than clear answers.

    President Biden wants U.S. intelligence to determine if the virus jumped from animals to humans or somehow escaped from a lab in China.

    Amna Nawaz looks at what we know now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The Trump administration emphasized it thought the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Southern China. But the U.S. intelligence community has been split over this.

    Nick Schifrin has been reporting on this all day. He joins me now.

    Nick, it's good to see you.

    Let's just start with President Biden's call for this review. Why is this coming now?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A senior administration official says the overall motivation is that the world needs greater clarity on the origins of COVID-19 in order to prevent the next pandemic.

    But, this week, the Biden team took affront to China's rejecting any calls to further investigation. A senior official tells me, back in March, President Biden requested an assessment of the intelligence of the origins and that he received that. But, on Tuesday, China rejected once again a call for a further investigation.

    And a senior official says that that led the White House to accelerate their declassification of the origins of COVID, leading to yesterday's statement calling for the intelligence community to redouble their efforts and a promise to release more information in the next three months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Nick, as Judy mentioned, one of the theories is that the virus escaped from a lab.

    What's the evidence for that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intelligence community has examined the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose scientists have admitted in the past that they have experimented with bat viruses, including by making them more lethal, and, of course, happens to be in Wuhan.

    And last fall, the U.S. received new information that led to a State Department statement that said that several researchers at the lab became sick with a COVID-like 19 illness in the fall of 2019. The lab had a separate military-run area, and the lab — quote — "altered and then removed online records of its work."

    Two former senior officials telling me that those researchers got so sick, they were hospitalized. But, initially, the Biden team said that none of that is a smoking gun.

    In fact, in March, a senior intelligence official told me that that statement was — quote — "not a complete story."

    The fact is, Amna, that the intelligence community has failed to create a definitive assessment. COVID could have leaked from the lab. COVID could have jumped from animals to humans. All of those theories are low to medium confidence within the intelligence community. And there's not even an agreement about them.

    The fact is, there is no new intelligence today, according to officials. But a senior administration official tells me the White House thinks the intelligence community can do more and is trying to provide more resources to examine big data to the intelligence community to do so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Nick, what does that mean?

    If they can do more, does that mean they could come up with a less ambiguous statement at some point?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I think that's a very good question. And the answer is simple: No.

    A senior administration official admits that they may not have a definitive answer. The fact is, intelligence officials try to be definitive, but they provide the answers that they have. And the fact is, the intelligence community has looked at this profusely in the last year-and-a-half. They have not had a definitive answer. And they may not have one in the future either.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick, what about political pressure back here in the U.S.? How much of a factor is that in all of this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's certainly pressure from Republicans, who have and that were threatening to call President Biden weak on China.

    In fact, just yesterday, legislation sponsored by Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Mike Braun calling on the administration to declassify their intelligence on the origins of COVID passed unanimously.

    Administration officials also acknowledge they feel a different kind of pressure, a pressure to use the power of the presidency to convince Americans that they are taking this seriously.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick, what about the origin of this? Why is it so important for officials to figure that out?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, scientists say that the world needs to know the origin of COVID-19 to prevent the next pandemic.

    And this administration believes that China has more answers when it comes to the origin than the United States does. And that is simply unacceptable to them.

    Just yesterday, Amna, the White House's top Asia official said that the era of U.S.-China engagement had come to an end and the future relationship would be one of competition, clearly, Amna, including over the origins of COVID-19.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick Schifrin reporting on the latest for this. Looks like there's a long way to go for some answers.

    Good to see you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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