Joe Biden may be forced to declassify intelligence into Covid-19 origins

Joe Biden - AP
Joe Biden - AP

Joe Biden is under pressure to declassify all US intelligence about the origins of Covid-19 after the House and Senate voted unanimously for the information to be released.

Friday’s 419-0 House vote was final approval of the bill, sending it to the US president’s desk to be signed into law. The Senate had earlier also voted unanimously in favour.

The move could expose details about funding, research, other activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and whether or not any staff became ill.

The renewed push on Capitol Hill to declassify the intelligence came shortly after it was reported that the Energy Department had determined, with “low confidence”, that coronavirus most likely came from a laboratory in China.

The president must now decide whether to sign the bill into law as requested, or veto it and risk the wrath of his own party and the American public.

The White House has not yet indicated what he will do.

Speaking for many lawmakers, Michael Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said: “The American public deserves answers to every aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Michael Turner - AP
Michael Turner - AP

That includes, he said, “how this virus was created and, specifically, whether it was a natural occurrence or was the result of a lab-related event”.

“Transparency is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

Intelligence agencies disagree on source of virus

US intelligence agencies are still divided over whether a lab leak or a spillover from animals is the likely source of the deadly virus.

The bill passed by the House on Friday would specifically direct Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), to “declassify any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin” of Covid-19.

That includes “activities performed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology with or on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army” and “coronavirus research or other related activities performed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the outbreak of Covid-19”.

Additionally, the measure would require that the DNI declassify information on the researchers working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who became sick in autumn 2019.

All that information would then be submitted to Congress in an unclassified report, with the DNI making any redactions necessary.

The vote comes as an Oxford University academic claimed that scientists dismissed the Covid-19 lab leak theory because they wanted to continue doing dangerous “gain-of-function” experiments to make viruses more deadly.

Anton van der Merwe, professor of molecular immunology, said scientists involved in similar work as the Wuhan Institute of Virology - the laboratory implicated in the lab leak - were worried that a ban would be re-imposed on such testing.

Wuhan Institute of Virology - ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Wuhan Institute of Virology - ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Feb 2021 - AFP
Members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Feb 2021 - AFP

Wuhan researchers were importing bat coronaviruses and had applied for grants to increase their infectiousness - known as gain-of-function research.

Prof van der Merwe believes that scientists had used articles in The Lancet and Nature Medicine to create a “false impression” that a natural spillover origin was scientific consensus.

Writing in the letters page of the Financial Times, he said: “The conflict arises from the fact the researchers perform, and want to continue to perform, precisely the sorts of experiments that make a laboratory leak much more likely.

“These include gain-of-function experiments, where they investigate whether they can enable, by genetic modification, an animal virus to infect human cells.

“It is argued that this could help us identify potentially dangerous organisms in the wild and so prevent a pandemic. This seems unlikely.

“What is more likely is that these organisms will infect those doing the experiments, who could unwittingly spread the virus to the community, and possibly the whole world.”

Prof van der Merwe said there was “little justification for doing such experiments, except scientific curiosity and the desire for prestige”.

He argued that if it was shown that the pandemic started in the Wuhan lab, such research could be banned forever.