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Biden To Receive A Classified Report On The Origins Of COVID-19

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today marks 90 days since President Biden ordered a systematic review into the origins of the coronavirus. Many scientists believe that the virus likely came from nature. But an alternative view is that it leaked from a laboratory in China, a theory that had been dismissed by many as a conspiracy theory until recent months. Joining us to discuss what this report might say is NPR's science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Good morning, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Geoff, just remind us again why the Biden administration ordered this review.

BRUMFIEL: Well, as you said there at the top, there are two theories about how this pandemic got started. First is the idea that it came from nature, probably started in bats and maybe came through markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where they were selling animals that might have caught it from the bats. Theory No. 2 is that a laboratory leaked the virus, and the chief suspect there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology because it studies coronaviruses. The Trump administration had pushed quite hard that lab leak theory, and Republicans in Congress have continued that push. And that's why in May, Biden announced this review of the intelligence.

FADEL: And what does the review involve?

BRUMFIEL: Well, basically, it involves the nation's intelligence agencies rechecking all the stuff they've already collected to see if anything's been missed. That could include everything from communications to databases to information from people on the ground, any of which could shed light on where this virus came from. The president will be briefed, then members of Congress, and eventually there's going to be an unclassified version, we're told.

FADEL: Could this report actually settle the question, though, of where the virus came from?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, I've been talking to people from both the scientific and the intelligence world. And honestly, everyone's kind of doubtful this report will put the question to rest. First of all, the intelligence agencies weren't really that focused on Wuhan or bat virus research before the pandemic. So...

FADEL: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...It's not clear how much intelligence they would have collected in late 2019. That's sort of the time period that matters. On the scientific side, it just takes a lot of legwork to figure out where viruses come from. So, you know, with the first SARS virus, they were eventually able to track it down to a cave full of bats, but that took a lot of animal sampling, tromping all over China. It's not the sort of thing you can do from a computer.

FADEL: Right.

BRUMFIEL: Now, there is one place this report might really add something new. CNN reported earlier this month that the intelligence agencies might have gotten a hold of a database of viral genetic sequences from the suspect lab. Now, if that database had a sequence that was virtually identical to SARS-CoV-2, that would be a strong indication the lab may have been working with the virus. But scientists I've spoken to say it would need to be a nearly identical match, and even then, there'd probably still be some questions.

FADEL: So are we ever going to know how this started?

BRUMFIEL: You know, there's always a chance that this intel report is going to hold some bombshell that we don't know about. But assuming it doesn't, it's not really looking great right now. And the real problem here is China itself. The Chinese government has refused to share data about the pandemic early on. It's blocking investigators from the World Health Organization. And lately, it's been pushing this idea that the virus came from an American lab, which is really false. So, I mean, the bottom line is everyone I speak to thinks China's involved with the cover-up. The question is, what are they covering up - lab leak or spillover? And unfortunately, the answer to that really matters, but it'll be hard to tell without their help.

FADEL: NPR's science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "GLIMMERING LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.