Intelligence officials are nearing the end of a 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19 that was ordered by President Joe Biden, and have drafted a classified report that is now in the preliminary review process, according to three sources familiar with the probe.
Sources familiar with the initial report say that after three months of poring over data and raw intelligence, the intelligence community is still divided over two theories – one suggesting the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China, and the other suggesting it jumped naturally to humans from animals, the sources said. The report as it stands now contains “nothing too earth shattering,” one source explained.
In May, Biden told US intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to investigate how the virus originated, including the possibility that it emerged from a lab accident. Biden ordered the investigation after receiving an earlier report on the origins and asking for follow-up information, he said in a statement. The 90-day clock that Biden set for this investigation will be up in late August.
It’s possible that the draft report could undergo significant revisions during the remaining review process. Biden also tasked the intelligence community with declassifying as much of the report as possible, a process now underway as it undergoes initial reviews.
The intelligence community’s inability to present one theory with high confidence after three months of intense work underscores just how hard it is to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We will not weigh in on the substance of the 90-day review while it is still underway,” an ODNI spokesman said in a statement to CNN.
Last week, CNN reported that intelligence agencies had gotten their hands on a trove of genetic data drawn from virus samples at the lab in Wuhan that some officials believe could have been the source of the outbreak. It’s unclear whether officials have finished analyzing that data.
Intelligence officials have also taken a fresh look at signals intelligence, like intercepted communications and satellite imagery, that could provide clues.
But ultimately, China’s refusal to share information from the early days of the outbreak and the country’s lack of transparency has been a major hurdle, and officials had been broadly pessimistic about finding a smoking gun during the 90-day push.
The report – which was done without any Chinese participation – is now being reviewed by the intelligence community and outside experts for feedback before it is finalized later this month, the three sources said. Once the classified version is finalized, an unclassified version will also be developed so that the Biden administration can share something with the public, one source explained.
Officials told CNN that the Biden administration has considered whether to launch another investigation if this one proves inconclusive, but it is unclear whether a decision has been made to reopen the probe after the 90-day report is released.
Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers made clear they want Biden to continue investigating the origins issue until the intelligence community reaches a high confidence assessment, even if that takes longer than 90 days.
But there are some concerns that the political debate around Covid origins and China’s refusal to share pertinent information means that the US may never reach a definitive conclusion on that front, two sources said.
“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid-19,” Biden said when he announced that he had launched the investigation, noting that he had previously called for the CDC to get access to China to learn about the virus in order to help fight it more effectively.
Collecting intelligence about the breadth of Chinese actions that may have inhibited the World Health Organization or other origins investigations was one of the two primary objectives of the Biden administration’s 90-day review earlier this summer, according to a tasking memo sent to relevant agencies that was obtained by CNN.
But unlike the question of whether the coronavirus first emerged naturally through human contact with animals in the wild or in markets, or via a lab accident, intelligence officials believe there is enough evidence to make a compelling case that the Chinese government’s initial handling of the outbreak and efforts to suppress relevant information in the months since, has significantly constrained all efforts to examine the pandemic’s true origins, according to a source familiar with the findings.
Despite a near consensus among those officials about the impact of China’s actions, it remains unclear how far the Biden administration will go in calling out Beijing publicly once its ongoing 90-day review is over or how those findings will factor into the version of the report that is publicly released, the source said.
“What they release will be interesting … but how far is Biden willing to go? If he tries these coercive measures on origins, how will that impact the other issues?” a former US official familiar with intelligence related to the origins investigation told CNN.
Biden’s launch of the investigation came after a US intelligence report found several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill with an unidentified infection or disease in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized – a new detail that fueled fresh public pressure on Biden to delve deeper into the origin of the virus.
It also came after CNN reported that 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.
White House officials have said that getting to the bottom of the origin of the pandemic will help prevent another one, and after unsuccessful World Health Organization (WHO) efforts to investigate the matter, the Biden administration orchestrated their own effort.
In July, the White House said it was “deeply disappointed” when China rejected the WHO’s plan for a second phase of an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. And after the WHO’s first investigation the White House was critical of their findings due to limited access to “complete, original data and samples.”