The U.S. ambassador to China says Beijing needs to be more forthcoming about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, a day after reports that the U.S. Energy Department concluded the outbreak likely began because of a Chinese laboratory leak.
Nicholas Burns told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event by video link Monday that China needs to “be more honest about what happened three years ago in Wuhan with the origin of the COVID-19 crisis.” Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in December 2019.
His comments come a day after U.S. media reported that the Energy Department determined the pandemic likely arose from a laboratory leak in Wuhan.
The department made its judgment in a classified intelligence report provided to the White House and key members of Congress, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the development, citing people who read the report.
The WSJ said the Energy Department intelligence agency was now the second U.S. intelligence agency after the FBI to conclude a Chinese lab leak was the probable cause of the pandemic, although U.S. spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby echoed that sentiment.
“There has not been a definitive conclusion and consensus in the U.S. government on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kirby told reporters Monday when asked about the WSJ report.
The Energy Department assessment was made with “low confidence,” while the FBI conclusion was determined with “moderate confidence,” according to the WSJ. Four other U.S. agencies have reportedly determined with “low confidence” that the virus was transmitted naturally through animals, while an additional two agencies remain undecided.
The reports again bring national attention to the question of what caused the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Energy Department’s conclusion marks a change from its earlier position that it was undecided on how the virus began. U.S. officials did not disclose what new intelligence brought about the change. The Energy Department’s analysis came from its network of national laboratories, giving it a perspective different from more traditional intelligence assessments.
On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that “there is a variety of views in the intelligence community.”
“Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other,” he said.
Scientists have also been divided on the issue, with some pointing to the live animal market in Wuhan as the most probable place the virus emerged, noting that animal-to-human transmission has been the pathway for many previously unknown pathogens. Other scientists, however, have given credence to the lab leak theory, noting that no animal source has been found and that Wuhan is a major site of coronavirus research.
The question of how the virus began has also exacerbated political divisions in the U.S., with Republicans more likely to back the lab leak hypothesis.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton was one of the first high-profile politicians to voice the theory that the virus originated in a lab setting, commenting in February 2020, when the predominant view was the virus had been transmitted from bats and spread at a food market in Wuhan.
After a growing number of scientists urged for both hypotheses to be seriously considered, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence review into the origins of COVID-19 in May 2021.
A declassified intelligence assessment in October 2021 stated that both hypotheses were plausible but that intelligence agencies remained divided over which theory was correct. The report said there was consensus among intelligence agencies that the pandemic was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons program.
China has repeatedly denied that a lab leak occurred in Wuhan. It has placed limits on World Health Organization investigations to determine the origin of the virus.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.