Home >Politics >News >New US intelligence report doesn’t provide definitive conclusion on covid-19 origins

WASHINGTON : A new assessment by US spy agencies of the origins of Covid-19 that was delivered to the White House Tuesday didn’t yield a definitive conclusion on whether the new coronavirus jumped to humans naturally, or via a lab leak, in part because of the lack of detailed information from China, two senior U.S. officials said.

The new assessment, which was ordered by President Biden 90 days ago, highlights the administration’s difficult challenge to wrest more information from Beijing that would shed light on how the global pandemic began.

It underscores the importance of inducing China to share lab records, genomic samples, and other data that could provide further illumination on the origins of the virus, which has killed more than four million people world-wide, current and former officials said.

“It was a deep dive, but you can only go so deep as the situation allows," one U.S. official said. “If China’s not going to give access to certain data sets, you’re never really going to know."

China has balked at U.S. and other efforts to provide that information, presenting the Biden administration with the same quandary—how to persuade Beijing to cooperate—that faced the Trump administration for almost a year. The extensive effort to press China for more information, some details of which haven’t been previously reported, ended in bureaucratic infighting and failure.

In the first weeks after China acknowledged the outbreak of disease in early 2020, before it spread overseas, Miles Yu, a China-born historian in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, downloaded copies of webpages from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-level biosecurity lab which had conducted work on coronaviruses. Mr. Yu had a hunch that Chinese officials would delete some of the material, he said. He mentioned the Wuhan Institute to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told him to make it a priority, Mr. Yu said.

In May of that year, Mr. Yu approached Thomas DiNanno, the acting head of the department’s arms control bureau, and told him that Mr. Pompeo had expressed frustration about the lack of good information on the origins of Covid-19, according to Mr. Yu and Mr. DiNanno. Mr. Pompeo declined to comment.

Mr. DiNanno began to use his bureau’s authorities to police compliance with arms-control treaties to requisition information from the intelligence community to assess if Chinese virus research had run afoul of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. His bureau paid $360,000 to a contractor, the Nebraska-based National Strategic Research Institute, to assist, a U.S. official said.

The institute tapped David Asher, a former official who was already working for Mr. DiNanno on Syria chemical-weapons issues and had overseen financial warfare against North Korea under President George W. Bush by freezing of its assets in a Macau-based bank.

One clue unearthed was a report, buried in intelligence agencies’ files, about several Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers becoming sick in the fall with symptoms that were consistent with Covid-19 or a seasonal illness. The team also found fresh information that the lab worked on classified research for the Chinese military.

By December, the State Department was moving along on several tracks. As Mr. DiNanno proceeded with the compliance review, David Feith, a deputy assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, was drafting an unclassified fact sheet on fresh intelligence that was being identified by Mr. DiNanno’s bureau, which the State Department planned to make public.

Top officials in the arms-control bureau also began to draft a formal diplomatic complaint known as a démarche that sought to hold China publicly accountable by questioning whether its laboratory research on coronaviruses ran afoul of the Biological Weapons Convention.

The drafting of a démarche, however, provoked a three-way tug of war with other State Department officials and with the Health and Human Services department. China has denied the virus leaked from one of its laboratories.

Even before the question of a démarche came to a head, sharp debates emerged within the State Department. In a tense mid-December meeting, Mr. DiNanno and Mr. Asher, outlined their preliminary conclusions to Chris Ford, an acting undersecretary who was Mr. DiNanno’s boss in the State Department chain of command, participants recalled. Mr. DiNanno thought the Wuhan Institute might not only have been the site of a lab leak but that it might have been used to carry out military research banned by the biological weapons pact.

Mr. Ford was skeptical and demanded that Mr. DiNanno subject his hypothesis that laboratory manipulation was involved in creating the virus to scientific scrutiny. Mr. Ford didn’t dispute the purported links between the Chinese military and the Wuhan lab but thought it plausible that China was conducting permitted experiments to develop defensive responses against biological weapons as the U.S. military does at Fort Detrick, Md.

“Please stop playing games and ducking responsibility," Mr. Ford said in a Jan. 6 email to Mr. DiNanno. “If you’re right, you should be willing to prove it."

Mr. DiNanno wrote back that he had already arranged for a scientific panel to be convened the next evening over Zoom. The panel met for three hours the following day to hear a presentation by Steven Quay, a scientist who had prepared a statistical analysis indicating the lab leak was the likely explanation. The panel’s discussion, however, wasn’t conclusive. “We are in the dark" without more information, said David Relman, a microbiologist from Stanford University, according to notes of the meeting that were reviewed by the Journal.

The next day, Mr. Ford submitted his resignation to protest the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump. In a four-page departure memo, he wrote that the scientific case for DiNanno’s allegations about China’s potential violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, when scrutinized, “largely fell apart."

Mr. DiNanno fired back the next day, saying in a separate memo that Mr. Ford had insisted on “disrupting the discussions between the experts with long-winded and ill-informed questions" in order to “discredit the entire effort."

The department still had yet to issue the fact sheet that Mr. Feith had been laboring over as the final two weeks of the Trump administration approached. Mr. Pompeo had shared some of its main points in a Jan. 4 phone call with the U.S.’s closest intelligence-sharing partners, known as the Five Eyes, according to an official who listened to the call. Because the U.S. was told that his New Zealand counterpart wouldn’t be in the office for the call, it took place over an unsecure, unencrypted telephone line.

In mid-January, a senior official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence signed off on the conclusions to be included in the State Department fact sheet, which was issued on Jan. 15. It noted that the U.S. had no definitive proof whether the virus came from a lab or arose naturally. But it said that American officials had reason to believe that several Wuhan Institute researchers became ill in the fall of 2019, that there were secret ties between the lab and the Chinese military and that it had conducted advanced work on coronaviruses.

That left the démarche as one outstanding initiative to press China for answers. Mr. DiNanno thought the note might be unveiled in the U.N. Security Council, or a conference of biological weapons treaty signatories or presented directly to China.

The draft he prepared asked why a Chinese military virologist had been sent to the Wuhan Institute during the Covid crisis and questioned whether the lab’s activities were consistent with the Biological Weapons Convention requirement that research be done for peaceful purposes, Mr. DiNanno recalled.

It also asserted that China’s failure to accurately report public-health emergencies in a timely manner was a violation of the international health regulations and asked about allegations Beijing had carried out research aimed at developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.

The draft was circulated to about 130 government officials. Much of the démarche ran counter to Mr. Ford’s and his staff’s assessment that there was no proof of weapons work by the lab and of their interpretation of the biological weapons pact’s provisions

The Department of Health and Human Services, which had worked for almost a year to persuade the World Health Organization to send an investigative team to Wuhan, also feared the diplomatic note would prompt China to block that visit, according to a then-department official.

Without an agreement on what questions to ask and with the Trump administration down to its final days, the diplomatic note was never sent.

After Mr. Biden took office, State Department officials who assumed authority over Mr. DiNanno’s old bureau concluded that there was “no connection" between the Wuhan lab and the Biological Weapons Convention, a U.S. official said. On Feb. 19, officials from that bureau briefed those conclusions to the State Department’s office of policy planning.

Beijing in July rejected a WHO proposal for a renewed investigation into Covid’s origins, backed by the Biden administration, that would include lab audits

Lacking definitive answers, U.S. officials have suggested Mr. Biden may use the new intelligence report to frame new questions for Beijing. Many U.S. lawmakers also are pressing the issue and are calling for a 9-11 style commission.

But a senior Biden administration official acknowledged: “We don’t have a silver bullet to get China to open up."

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