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What Prompted Biden To Order A Deeper Look Into COVID-19's Origin?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where exactly did COVID-19 come from? President Biden wants the intelligence community to figure it out. The most common answer for any virus would be that it developed in animals and spread to humans. But the presence of a high-tech lab in Wuhan, China, has triggered questions for more than a year. Wuhan is where the virus was first detected. The discovery of additional evidence about the lab led the president to ask for answers within three months.

We have got NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith with us this morning. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. This is a major change for the administration - right? - to ask for this.

KEITH: Yeah, it was definitely a shift in message from the White House. Until now, they had batted away the idea of a U.S. investigation, instead focusing on the need for the World Health Organization to do a more complete study of what happened. But yesterday, we learned for the first time from the White House that back in March, Biden had asked his advisers and intelligence community to dig into the origins of COVID-19. They, quote, "coalesced behind two likely scenarios" - transmission from animals to humans or a leak or accident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Karine Jean-Pierre, who led the White House press briefing yesterday, said Biden is asking the intelligence agencies to keep digging to get closer to a definitive conclusion within 90 days.

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KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: It was inconclusive, so we need to get to the bottom of this. As we all know, we've lost almost 600,000 Americans to COVID-19. And we have to get a better sense of the origin of COVID-19 and also how do we prevent the next pandemic.

MARTIN: But what happened, Tam? I mean, last year, scientists were really dismissive of the entire idea that this came from a lab leak.

KEITH: Yeah. Back then, former President Donald Trump and his supporters were deflecting blame and accusing China of releasing COVID as a weapon. And as with so many things connected to the former president, it generated a backlash. I spoke with Stephen Morrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who says the lab leak theory was initially associated with China-bashing.

STEPHEN MORRISON: It got jumbled up together with some of the more crazy aspects of Trump. And scientists recoiled against that and went in favor of the theory that COVID-19 had emerged out of a natural process versus a lab escape.

KEITH: And there - other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS, both came from that animal-to-human pathway. So there was a reason scientists were leaning that way, and many still are. But then late last year, some credible scientists started saying that the lab escape theory deserved another look. And then the WHO went to Wuhan, China, earlier this year and tried to investigate and didn't get real cooperation or transparency. And Morrison told me that fueled this push for more study.

MARTIN: So if a definitive answer is found eventually, what would be the practical implications of that?

KEITH: Yeah, if it was a lab leak, that would lead to efforts to make sure that labs doing research on dangerous pathogens are more secure, or it might lead to some of this research being scaled back. And if it moved from animals to humans, then there could be additional efforts to cut off those pathways of transmission. Without knowing the answer, there could be paralysis in terms of how to avoid the next pandemic.

MARTIN: What's China been saying about this?

KEITH: Well, they are under intense international pressure to be more transparent, and they are digging in. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman in a press conference responded to the Biden statement about all this, accusing the U.S. of being the source of COVID-19 and demanding international investigators be let into American research labs. So it's really not clear how the international community is going to get a conclusive answer about what happened.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.