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Biden's new order for U.S. intel to investigate COVID origins marks a notable shift in tone in a matter of days
04:34 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

President Joe Biden has ordered a 90-day review by the US intelligence community of what is known about the origins of Covid.

Intel operation, not scientific inquiry. He wants the intelligence community to cooperate with other elements of the government, but getting to the bottom of how this disease occurred, at least in the eyes of the President dealing with obstruction from China, is now fully an intelligence operation. But that order likely poses a complicated challenge for intelligence agencies, which, as CNN has repeatedly reported, are limited in their ability to confidently answer the question of what actually happened. While the intelligence community has been actively engaged on the issue since it broke, Biden’s order is a public call for more, despite the fact that it has been unable to make significant progress for more than a year.

Hypotheses: The two likeliest scenarios are:

  • That the disease occurred naturally and passed from animals to humans, as China insists and many scientists think is most likely.
  • That it resulted from some kind of lab accident, which can’t be ruled out since China has largely refused to complete transparency.

So it’s the CIA, not the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the government is now looking to. And it’s the scientists, who were adamant a year ago that the lab theory was extremely unlikely, now saying it needs more exploration. That appears to be what caused this change. But while intelligence professionals have been more cautious in characterizing their own findings, the lack of apparent progress over the last year should temper expectations, especially considering that China is uninterested or unwilling to help any effort aimed at discovering the truth.

Still, Biden has put the ball in the court of intelligence professionals, saying in a statement that he had already gotten a review of what the government knows from his top national security aide, Jake Sullivan, and that additional inquiry is warranted.

One thing Biden wants from the intelligence community is questions that China must answer.

Trump-era inquiry was shut down. Complicating Biden’s new review is this news, first reported by CNN on Tuesday:

Biden’s team shut down a closely held State Department effort launched late in the Trump administration to prove that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese lab over concerns about the quality of its work, according to three sources familiar with the decision.

The decision to terminate the inquiry, which was run primarily out of the State Department’s arms control and verification bureau, was made after Biden officials were briefed on the team’s draft findings in February and March of this year, a State Department spokesperson said.

It’s important to note here that the Biden administration did not shut down any intelligence community review earlier this year, but only the State Department effort, which was viewed as political.

In fact, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, described the two theories during congressional testimony this year and said the intelligence community had not taken a side.

Still, this is being framed as political vindication for people like Rep. Todd Young, the Indiana Republican whose disbelief about China’s story on the origins of Covid has been raised repeatedly at hearings and in interviews, and has previously been dismissed as a conspiracy theory. He appeared on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” Wednesday.

Here’s a portion of that interview:

On the WHO, which published a report calling for more review but arguing a lab leak was extremely unlikely

TAPPER: The Biden administration is leaning on the World Health Organization to investigate the Wuhan lab theory. Obviously that’s – they are more – we, we are more likely to get some answers from WHO, which China is party to, than, you know, they are not going to let the CIA come in and give it a look.

But do you think any findings from – from the World Health Organization will be credible at this point?

YOUNG:Well, look, they are certainly in need of great reform. Perhaps replacement as an entity. In fact, I led a hearing on this before the virus ever impacted the world about reforming the World Health Organization and perhaps coming up with a better model, but with that said I think its credibility will only be undermined further if they don’t – if they aren’t able to persuade the Chinese Communist Party to come up with the data pertaining to this virus and provide access to some of the Chinese nationals who were working on this virus. I don’t see any other way for the World Health Organization to restore its credibility in the eyes of Americans and many across the world, who have seen them, frankly, place more trust in the Chinese Communist Party leadership and more deference to them than they to the Western world.”

The origin theories for Covid, like so much about the disease, have evolved repeatedly. That many scientists want China to help prove that it occurred naturally is a switch from the early consensus among experts that it likely occurred naturally, and has more to do with transparency and politics than scientific likelihood.

On the State Department review of the lab leak theory, which the Biden administration ended:

TAPPER: In the final months of the Trump administration the State Department was trying to investigate in some way the Wuhan lab theory, but sources tell CNN the Biden administration when they came in they should that down and today your Republican colleague John Kennedy from Louisiana pressed Dr. Fauci and others at the NIH about the guidance and whether they had offered any guidance to the Biden administration on shutting that down. … What do you make of that?

YOUNG: “The Biden administration, Secretary of State Blinken, the President himself need to explain why they spiked this legitimate and very important investigation that was going on, seemingly interrupted for either ideological purposes or political purposes as opposed to any other legitimate reason.

“In the absence of explanation, and we weren’t able to get it from the chief health policy advisers of the Biden administration, then one can only assume these – these other motives, and that’s unfortunate when you’re talking about the health of the American people here and now, but also thinking about how we might prepare for another pandemic, which is almost a certitude the way the Chinese Communist Party carries on their activities with wet markets, seemingly with poorly attended labs and other problems, including not reporting the outbreak of a pandemic to the world, violating international law over a year ago.”

Turnarounds aplenty. Dr. Anthony Fauci, long a target of Republican critics in the US, is among those now calling for more review of the virus’s origins. He has seen a major transformation in the way he’s portrayed in China, once as a hero and now as a villain.

The other frustration with Fauci among Republicans is that early in the pandemic, he advised against the wearing of masks, which was the first major reversal of Covid safety guidance.

How CDC guidance happens. Masks haven’t gotten any less complicated. The US government recently recommended that the vaccinated don’t need them in most situations, which may have been meant as an incentive to get more Americans vaccinated, but also led to many states dropping mask mandates for everyone.

There is still no new CDC guidance for masks and children attending summer camp, even as summer approaches, and there is still very little evidence of outdoor transmission of Covid, as David Leonhardt writes again in The New York Times.

How the government makes recommendations and a circumspect view of scientific precedent utilized by public health officials should be things that change as a result of Covid.

A scientist friend of mine passed along a fascinating Wired feature about how a decades-old study of tuberculosis led, generations later, to the CDC’s 6-feet social distance recommendation for Covid. Read this story, which carries the headline “The 60-year-old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill.” It’s very good.

The Latest

Another mass shooting. An employee of the Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose is thought to have opened fire and killed fellow employees at a rail yard. He is now dead, along with eight victims. Read the latest developments here.

ATF nominee, a gun control advocate, faces tough confirmation. David Chipman would be just the second confirmed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives director in the agency’s history. It’s very difficult to get confirmed. Even Trump’s nominee was blocked by Senate Republicans for not being sufficiently pro-gun. Chipman has the advantage of a slim Democratic majority. He’s been endorsed by law enforcement groups and opposed by gun rights groups.

Activist investors oust Exxon board members. From CNN’s report: A hedge fund that’s criticized ExxonMobil’s climate strategy won enough shareholder support to oust at least two directors from the oil giant’s board, a major loss for the once-mighty company. For the first time in modern history, America’s largest oil company faced a credible challenge from an activist investor, Engine No. 1. Upset with Exxon’s financial performance and its foot-dragging on climate, the hedge fund sought to oust four directors at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Watch this: Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes on JPMorgan CEO in fiery exchange.

Baloney! Warren to Jamie Dimon: “You and your colleagues come in today to talk about how you stepped up and took care of customers during the pandemic, and it’s a bunch of baloney.”

A little bubble. Separately, Dimon said the housing market is in “a little bit of a bubble” and warned against profligate government spending.

Staggering around drunk. I like this quote from Larry Summers, once on Biden’s economic team short list and, spurned, loudly raising the alarm about economic policy from the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve.

“The Fed’s idea used to be that it removed the punchbowl before the party got good,” Summer said. “Now, the Fed’s doctrine is that it will only remove the punchbowl after it sees some people staggering around drunk.”

On Covid: 10 states have 70% of adults vaccinated; vaccine tourists are coming to the US (we met these folks from Peru); controversial $1 million lottery pot to spur vaccines worked, says Ohio governor; the unvaccinated shouldn’t rely on protection from others, per experts; discovery of India strain of Covid in British schoolchildren is concerning.