Exclusive: Biden's top intelligence official says COVID origins may never be known

The top U.S. intelligence official said in an interview with Yahoo News on Monday that the true origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 600,000 Americans and almost 4 million people worldwide, may never be known.

Last month, President Biden directed the intelligence community to conduct a 90-day review of what he described as the two plausible theories for how the pandemic originated. In one scenario, the virus emerged from human contact with an animal. In the other, it leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, China.

But Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, expressed considerable caution about the likelihood of the U.S. government solving this vexing mystery.

Asked if it’s possible the intelligence community will never have “high confidence” or a smoking gun on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haines responded, “Yes, absolutely.” Haines, who studied physics at the University of Chicago, held out the possibility of a eureka moment but refused to predict a breakthrough. “We’re hoping to find a smoking gun,” she said, but “it’s challenging to do that,” adding that “it might happen, but it might not.”

Haines said she has been closely overseeing the review, which involves dozens of analysts and intelligence officials, and has immersed herself in the details. She is regularly briefed by analysts who represent the rival theories, which may explain her caution about predicting a breakthrough. “I don’t know between these two plausible theories which one is the right answer,” she said in the interview. “But I’ve listened to the analysts, and I really see why it is that they perceive these two theories as being in contest with each other and why it’s very challenging for them to assess one over the other.”

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where authorities said a man who died from a respiratory illness in January 2020 had purchased goods. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevailing theory among scientists and public health experts is that the virus had a natural origin — that it likely jumped from bats to another species before transferring to humans at a wet market in Wuhan. The theory that it may have leaked from a Chinese lab also emerged in the earliest days of the pandemic, but the consensus among scientists was that a natural occurrence was the far more likely explanation.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization sent a team of scientists to Wuhan to investigate the source of the pandemic and concluded that a lab accident was “extremely unlikely.” Over time, the lab accident theory was increasingly marginalized in the public sphere and even derided by many as a conspiracy theory propagated by the Trump administration to deflect from criticism that it had botched its response to the pandemic.

The American news media, with notable exceptions, was criticized for engaging in groupthink for its collective failure to take the lab leak theory seriously. And yet from the earliest days of the pandemic, the U.S. intelligence community has been steadfastly pursuing the lab accident hypothesis, with some officials even arguing that a leak from a research lab was the most likely scenario. Last month, the theory started to gain more traction publicly after Bloomberg News revealed a classified U.S. intelligence report indicating that three researchers at the Wuhan laboratory fell ill and sought hospital treatment in November 2019, right around the time the virus began infecting people in the Chinese city. Soon thereafter, Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts” to discover the origins of the coronavirus, an implicit but clear indication that the new administration was taking seriously the possibility that the virus had accidentally leaked from a lab.

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Security personnel outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the World Health Organization’s visit in February. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Responsibility for getting to the bottom of this mystery now lay in the hands of Haines, a former deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. She had 90 days to report back to Biden while presiding over an intelligence community that has been deeply divided over the question. There have been other major obstacles as well, including China’s unwillingness to cooperate, notably refusing to turn over lab records that would help in the investigation.

In her only public comments since the start of the review, Haines told Yahoo News that her teams were seeking to collect new intelligence that might shed light on the pandemic’s source, while also applying fresh analysis to the intelligence that has already been gathered. Her agencies, she said, “are trying to get as much information as possible, new information that could be applied against the challenge,” but also “just brainstorming about different ways to approach the problem that might reveal how information that you hadn’t thought could be relevant might be useful.”

To that end, Haines has deployed “red cells,” or groups of contrarian thinkers to challenge the assumptions of analysts and ensure that the intelligence is being examined from every relevant angle. “There’s an effort to do exercises,” she said. “Do one exercise, look at one hypothesis, do another exercise looking at the other hypothesis.”

The effort has been coordinated by the National Counterproliferation Center, which has been tapping resources across the intelligence community, making sure that all collection avenues are being pursued and that foreign intelligence liaisons and other overseas partners are tapped “to ensure we have as much information and any information that they might have on the table,” Haines said.

But nearly a month into the review, it appears that the intelligence community is no closer to settling on one explanation of how the deadly virus originated. Haines pointed out the difficulties of “proving a negative.”

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington in April. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via Reuters)
National Intelligence Director Avril Haines. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via Reuters)

From listening intently to both sides of the debate, Haines does understand why both arguments seem so plausible. “It’s true that the vast majority of pandemics and novel diseases have originated through human contact with animals, but you also look at the fact that it appears to have come from the area in which this lab was doing work on coronaviruses and you have to look at that option as well. You can make an argument in either direction.”

Haines even posited a third, hybrid theory for the virus’s origin. “It could be, for example, a scenario in which a scientist comes into contact with an animal that they’re sampling from” and contracts the virus in that way.

Should the review end with no definitive resolution on the origins of the virus, Haines will have no choice but to give Biden and other senior policymakers that unsatisfying answer.

Insight into how COVID-19 spread could provide crucial information to public health officials looking for strategies to prevent the next outbreak. And if it turned out it leaked from a Chinese lab, that would be important information guiding Washington’s tense competition with Beijing, not to mention leverage to push for stricter safety regimes of international research labs.

But Haines said that as much as she’d like to solve this scientific and national security conundrum, the intelligence community has to stick to its core mission of calling it as they see it. “The best thing I can do is to present the facts as we know them and to present the analysis that we’ve done in as unbiased a way possible,” she said.

Added Haines, “We’re going to do our damnedest to try to get an answer. But what policymakers hope and expect from me, I think, is that I present to them what we do and what we don’t know, and I don’t try to make something up or give them an answer that I think they might like to have.”


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