President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.
The president said the US intelligence community was split on whether it came from a lab accident or emerged from human contact with an infected animal.
He asked the groups to report back to him within 90 days.
China has rejected the laboratory theory.
“Smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of ‘lab leak’ is resurfacing,” its embassy in the US said in a statement on May 27.
Since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, more than 168 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed worldwide and at least 3.5 million deaths reported.
Authorities linked early Covid cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, leading scientists to theorize the virus first passed to humans from animals.
However, recent media reports have suggested growing evidence the virus could instead have emerged from a laboratory in China, perhaps through an accidental leak.
In a statement on May 26, President Biden said he had asked for a report on the origins of Covid-19 after taking office, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”.
On receiving it this month, he asked for “additional follow-up”.
President Biden said the majority of the intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two scenarios, but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”.
He has now asked agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”.
President Biden concluded by saying the US would “keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation”.
Beijing has previously suggested Covid-19 could have come from a US laboratory instead.
In its statement, the Chinese embassy said it supported a full investigation into “some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world”.
On May 27, on spokesman for China’s foreign ministry hit out at the “dark history” of the US intelligence community, and said the Biden administration’s “motive and purposes” were clear.
President Biden’s statement came as CNN reported that the president’s administration this spring shut down a state department investigation into whether the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab, deeming the probe an ineffective use of resources.
Speculation about the Wuhan Institute of Virology – one of China’s top virus research labs – began in 2020 and was propagated by President Donald Trump.
In April 2020, State Department cables came to light that showed embassy officials were worried about biosecurity at the lab.
The leak allegations were widely dismissed as a fringe conspiracy theory.
Earlier this year, the WHO issued a report written jointly with Chinese scientists on the origins of Covid-19 which said the chances of it having started in a lab were “extremely unlikely”.
The WHO report said the virus had probably jumped from bats to humans via another intermediary animal, but more research was needed.
However, questions have persisted and recent reports attributed to US intelligence sources say three members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to hospital in November 2019, several weeks before China acknowledged the first case of the new disease in the community.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, has maintained he believes the virus was passed from animals to humans, though he conceded this month he was no longer confident Covid-19 had developed naturally.
President Biden’s statement came the day after Xavier Becerra, US secretary for health and human services, urged the WHO to ensure a “transparent” investigation into the virus’s origins.
In Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak, all traffic lights in urban areas were turned red at 10:00, ceasing traffic for three minutes.
The Chinese government said the event was a chance to pay respects to “martyrs”, a reference to the 14 medical workers who died battling the virus.
They include Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who died of Covid-19 after being reprimanded by the authorities for attempting to warn others about the disease.
Wearing white flowers pinned to their chest, China’s President Xi Jinping and other government officials paid silent tribute in Beijing.
The commemorations coincide with the annual Qingming festival, when millions of Chinese families pay respects to their ancestors.
China first informed the WHO about cases of pneumonia with unknown causes on December 31, 2019.
By January 18, 2020, the confirmed number of cases had risen to around 60 – but experts estimated the real figure was closer to 1,700.
Just two days later, as millions of people prepared to travel for the lunar new year, the number of cases more than tripled to more than 200 and the virus was detected in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
From that point, the virus began to spread rapidly in Asia and then Europe, eventually reaching every corner of the globe.
However, in the past few weeks, China has started to ease travel and social-distancing restrictions, believing it has brought the health emergency under control.
Last week, Wuhan partially re-opened after more than two months of isolation.
On April 4, China reported 19 new confirmed cases of coronavirus, down from 31 a day earlier. China’s health commission said 18 of those cases involved travelers arriving from abroad.
As it battles to control cases coming from abroad, China temporarily banned all foreign visitors, even if they have visas or residence permits.
As the coronavirus crisis in China abates, the rest of the world remains firmly in the grip of the disease.
In a public statement on January 31, Health Secretary Alex Azar said US
citizens returning from Hubei province would face 14 days of quarantine while
those returning from other parts of China would be allowed to monitor their own
condition for a similar period.
He told reporters: “Following the
World Health Organization decision, I have today declared that the coronavirus
represents a public health emergency in the United States.”
Citing the need to relieve pressure
on authorities, Alex Azar said that foreign nationals who had travelled in
China in the past two weeks would be denied entry to the US.
He added: “The risk of infection for Americans remains low and with these,
and our previous, actions we are working to keep the risk low.”
Another confirmed case in the US on
January 31 – in California – brought the number there to seven. Robert
Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
said 191 people were under observation for the disease.
The US announcement came as other
countries around the world scrambled to contain the spread of the new virus,
On January 31, the UK confirmed its first two cases.
Estimates by the University of Hong Kong suggest the true total number of
cases could be far higher than official figures suggest. Based on mathematical
models of the outbreak, experts there say more than 75,000 people may have been
infected in the city of Wuhan alone, where the virus first emerged.
Most cases outside China involve people who have been to Wuhan. Germany,
Japan, Vietnam, the US, Thailand and South Korea have reported person-to-person
cases – patients being infected by people who had travelled to China.
Meanwhile in Wuhan, voluntary evacuations of hundreds of foreign nationals
are under way.
Australia, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and the UK are expected to quarantine all evacuees for two weeks to monitor them for symptoms and avoid contagion.
The spread of the deadly coronavirus is
accelerating, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned, after holding a special
government meeting on the Lunar New Year public holiday.
China is facing a “grave situation” President Xi told senior
The new virus has killed at least 56 people and infected almost 2,000 since
its discovery in the city of Wuhan.
Meanwhile, the US has announced that staff at the Wuhan consulate will be
evacuated on a special flight on January 28.
According to the State Department, private Americans most at risk will also
be able to board the flight to San Francisco.
Meanwhile, UK-based researchers have warned of a real possibility that China
will not be able to contain the virus.
Travel restrictions have come in place in several affected cities. From
January 26, private vehicles will be banned from central districts of Wuhan,
the source of the outbreak.
According to Chinese state newspaper the People’s
Daily, a second emergency hospital is to be built there within weeks to
handle 1,300 new patients, and will be finished in half a month. It is the
second such rapid construction project: work on another 1,000-bed hospital has
Specialist military medical teams have also been flown into Hubei province,
where Wuhan is located.
The urgency reflects concern both within China and elsewhere about the virus
which first appeared in December.
Lunar New Year celebrations for the year of the rat, which began on January
25, have been canceled in many Chinese cities.
Across mainland China, travelers are having their temperatures checked for
signs of fever, and train stations have been shut in several cities.
Hong Kong has declared the highest level of emergency and school holidays
Several other nations are each dealing with a handful of cases, with
patients being treated in isolation.
A coronavirus is a family of viruses which include the common cold.
However, this virus has never been seen before. It is called 2019-nCov, for
New viruses can become common in humans after jumping across the species
barrier from animals.
The SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak of 2003 started in
bats and transferred to the civet cat which passed it on to humans.
This new Chinese virus also causes severe acute respiratory infection.
Symptoms seem to start with a fever, followed by a dry cough and then, after a week, lead to shortness of breath and some patients needing hospital treatment.
There is no specific cure or vaccine.
Based on early information, it is believed that only a quarter of infected
cases are “severe”, and the dead are mostly – though not exclusively
– older people, some of whom have pre-existing conditions.
The Chinese authorities suspect a seafood market that “conducted illegal transactions of wild animals” was the source of the outbreak.
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