During a hearing before a Senate panel on Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said the intelligence community does not know whether COVID-19 initially transmitted to humans from an animal, or whether it was due to an accident in a lab. CIA Director Bill Burns then criticized the Chinese government for not being transparent about finding the origins of the virus.
MARCO RUBIO: So about a year and a half ago, a bat virus infected human beings, transferred into something that infected human beings. I don’t need to tell everybody what’s happened since then. The official answer for why it’s happened, and it is a possible answer, is that this was a new zoonotic transmission. That it crossed over from an animal into a human. But there’s another hypothesis, which is plausible, and that is, one, that there was an accident in the laboratory that ended up impacting the world the way we’ve seen.
And there’s reason to believe that’s plausible. Number one, researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Technology have demonstrated from their publication record that they were skilled at techniques in which they genetically modified bat coronaviruses in order to create new man-made viruses that that were highly capable of creating disease in human beings. Second, there have been several lab leaks, documented, that have occurred in China, including ones involving the original SARS virus. And third, US diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 warned of the risks of the sub-par safety standards that they observed.
I think it’s really a two-part question and I’ll start with you, Director Haines, but I think Director Burns or General Nakasone can weigh in. We can’t conclude definitively that the virus that causes COVID-19 emerged naturally until there’s a transmission chain that’s been identified how the virus evolved and transmitted between species. And, to date, no such path of zoonotic transmission has been definitively identified. Are those two things accurate?
AVRIL HAINES: Thank you Vice Chairman. So it is absolutely accurate. The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when, or how COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially. And basically, components have coalesced around two alternative theories. These scenarios are, it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, or it was a laboratory accident, as you identified. And that is where we are right now, but we’re continuing to work on this issue and collect information, and to the best we can, essentially, to give you greater confidence in what the scenario is. But I’ll leave it to my colleagues if there’s anything that they want to add.
WILLIAM JOSEPH BURNS: No, sir, Mr. Vice Chairman. I agree with what Avril said. I mean, the one thing that’s clear to us, and to our analysts, is that the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent. I mean, working with the WHO or in providing the kind of original, complete data that would help answer those questions. So we’re doing everything we can using all the sources available to all of us on this panel to try to get to the bottom of it.