WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Monday signed legislation ordering the declassification of information related to the origins of COVID-19, a mystery that has divided the eight U.S. government agencies investigating the source.
The bill, which sailed through the House and Senate without opposition, requires the director of national intelligence to release the information within 90 days. The government can, however, withhold intelligence to protect how it was collected.
The White House confirmed the president’s signature Monday evening after declining to reveal Biden’s position on the bill the past week, staying noncommittal up to the signing.
“I share the Congress’s goal of releasing as much information as possible about the origin of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19),” Biden said in a statement. “We need to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins to help ensure we can better prevent future pandemics.”
The legislation applies only to material related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a potential source of COVID – a politically charged issue. Republicans have accused Biden of not being tough enough on China.
The virus first appeared in 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
New evidence cited by the World Health Organization contributes to the theory that the virus originated from animals. Samples collected at a Chinese seafood market in Wuhan show raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus.
The genetic sequences were recently added by Chinese scientists to a public virus database – and then removed, but not before the information was shared.
Biden pointed to his 2021 directive for the federal government to study the origins of COVID-19 – an effort that is still ongoing – and said his administration “will continue to review all classified information relating to COVID–19’s origins, including potential links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
In implementing the legislation, Biden said his administration will declassify and share “as much of that information as possible,” consistent with his constitutional authority not to disclose information that would harm national security.
Only one of the eight agencies that investigated the link initially favored the institute as the likely source, according to the declassified summary of government investigations submitted to the White House in 2021. Since then, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Energy Department – which had been one of three agencies unable to reach a conclusion – now leans toward the theory that the virus leaked from the virology institute.
Four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council concluded, with low confidence, that the virus likely spread to humans from an infected animal.
After taking control of the House in January, House Republicans made investigating the origins of COVID one of their top priorities.
Rep. Michael Turner, the Ohio Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel is aware of information that could help explain why “a lab leak theory is not just a possibility but approaches the idea that it is likely.”
“The intelligence community does have more information about COVID-19 than the public is led to believe,” Turner said when the House debated the legislation March 10. “This laboratory and who was working there might be the key to unraveling the truth.”
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the classified information shows there’s no answer yet. But Himes said the government should release as much declassified information as possible because transparency is critical.
“The factual grounding of the (intelligence communities’) analysis can be an antidote to the speculation, the rumor, and the theories that grow in the absence of good information,” he said.
Contributing: Associated Press