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U.S. Officials Press For Deeper Coronavirus Origins Investigation


Today, President Biden released a statement about the origins of the coronavirus. In it, he said that U.S. intelligence agencies are unsure whether the virus developed naturally or was accidentally released from a lab. Separately on Capitol Hill, some of the nation's top scientists called for a more thorough investigation into the origins of the virus. Joining me now to discuss what this all means is NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel.

Hey, Geoff.


CHANG: Hi. OK, so let's start with this statement from the president. What exactly did it say?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it said that the intelligence community was divided over whether the coronavirus came from a natural source or whether it was the result of a laboratory accident. Now, the majority of the nation's many intel agencies said they weren't sure, but two agencies thought it was probably natural. One thought it probably came from a lab. All three of those assessments are low-to-moderate confidence based on the data they have, so it's not a high-confidence assessment.

CHANG: Wait. Wait. Low-to-moderate confidence - that is not reassuring. What exactly does that mean?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, the short answer is it means they don't know. Low-to-moderate confidence could mean that they don't have a lot of sources of intelligence to draw on or that they don't trust the sources they do have. And the fact that we're seeing a split is a further indication that there's no clear answer from the intel that's available. I mean, this, by the way, isn't particularly unusual for the intelligence agencies. What is a little unusual is the fact that the president put out such a clear statement on the lack of clarity.

CHANG: Oh, that's interesting. Why do you think Biden did that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, since the start of this pandemic, there's been this theory going around that the virus might have come from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This is where the first known cases appeared. And there is a lab there, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that works with bat coronaviruses. So the idea would be that there was some sort of accident at the laboratory. Somebody got sick, and then they walked out into the city, and they triggered this pandemic. Now, the Trump administration pushed this theory extremely hard. They were trying really, really hard to pin it on China. And Republicans in Congress have kept that pressure up. So today's statement seems to be, in part, intended as sort of a signal of a more measured approach from the Biden...

CHANG: I see.

BRUMFIEL: ...Administration.

CHANG: OK. So the intelligence agencies are unsure at the moment. But what about the scientists who were on Capitol Hill today? What did they say?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the president's chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, was asked about all this, and here's what he had to say.


ANTHONY FAUCI: I feel the likelihood is still high that this is a natural occurrence. But since we cannot know 100% whether it is or is not, other possibilities exist. And for that reason, I and my colleagues have been saying that we're very much in favor of a further investigation.

BRUMFIEL: And I would say that's the predominant view among the scientific community - that it's more likely that it came from an animal into people. And we have lots of examples of this. Ebola, HIV, the first SARS virus for that matter - all of them came from natural reservoirs into humans. At the same time, a lot of scientists that I've spoken to about this are pretty angry about what they see as a complete lack of transparency from China. The Chinese government hasn't shared nearly enough data from either the lab in question or from their search for the natural home of the virus. And so the researchers I've spoken to are in - all pretty much in favor of a more thorough investigation.

CHANG: All right. Well, then where do things go from here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Biden says he's given the intelligence community 90 days to come up with a more definitive assessment. Of course, it may not even be possible, given the quality of the intel they have. We'll have to see about that. Separately, the administration wants the World Health Organization to begin a more thorough investigation into the virus' origins. That's going to depend on China's cooperation. Scientists and administration officials all seem to agree that it's really important to try to get to the bottom of this. I mean...

CHANG: Right.

BRUMFIEL: Either answer has huge implications for stopping the next pandemic, and the world just needs to know if we can.

CHANG: That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.