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Intelligence Priorities Shift As Biden Calls For Investigation Into COVID-19 Origins

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Among scientists, the dominant theory for how the COVID-19 pandemic began remains natural transmission from animals to humans. But even the nation's top public health experts are supporting President Biden's call for further intelligence gathering to provide a more, quote, "definitive conclusion" to the pandemic's origins. In a statement yesterday, Biden acknowledged that the country's intelligence community doesn't have enough information to say whether the coronavirus came directly from an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. And that announcement reframes public health as a national security issue. National security reporter Michael Gordon reported on this for The Wall Street Journal. He joins us now. Welcome.

MICHAEL GORDON: I'm glad to be here.

CHANG: This theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, why is this theory resurfacing again as a legitimate reason to investigate everything all over again?

GORDON: Well, it was never fully investigated in the first place. There is some circumstantial evidence that I reported on, along with my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, and that is the U.S. government has been given some intelligence. Jen Psaki says it's from a foreign entity. Three researchers at the lab became sick enough that they visited a local hospital in November 2019.

CHANG: This is the lab in Wuhan.

GORDON: We don't know that these researchers had COVID and just didn't have a seasonal flu. But it's led some people to wonder, were these the first people who were infected with COVID? Is that how it emerged in Wuhan? This is just circumstantial evidence for a theory that's unproven, but it's these sorts of things that have led the U.S. government and have led the head of WHO himself to say that the lab theory, at a minimum, requires further investigation.

CHANG: I just want us to take a step back for a moment. What do you see as the significance of the U.S. placing this new investigation in the hands of intelligence officials now, rather than in the hands of public health officials?

GORDON: Well, you have to recall that President Biden initially thought that the WHO should take the lead in this investigation.

CHANG: Right.

GORDON: The problem is the Chinese have made it clear they're not going to cooperate with the WHO. They said that just this week. And so what I think President Biden did is he picked - recognizing that the Chinese are unlikely to cooperate, he picked the organizations that specialize in inquiries in closed society through national technical means, cooperation with friendly governments who have their own intelligence and whatever analytical capabilities they have to ferret out what is known.

CHANG: But let's talk about the history of the intel community, because U.S. intelligence agencies have failed to make detection of global pandemics a priority. And there are a lot of reasons for this, which you have reported on. Can you just explain why that has been the case up until now?

GORDON: The reality is that with the focus on gathering intelligence on military adversaries, weapons proliferation, terrorism, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, those things are far higher priorities traditionally for intelligence agencies than detecting a global pandemic. They had not traditionally seen it as a core responsibility.

CHANG: Well, do you think that this shift in priorities under the Biden administration for intel agencies to pour resources now in biological threats, particularly into this investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, do you think that could represent a long-lasting shift in priorities for intel?

GORDON: Well, we'll have to see if the Biden administration fully implements this. And I personally think that after the American people have been through this ordeal over more than a year of isolation and dealing with COVID and being fearful of it, there's probably a lot of public support for the U.S. government across the board to do more to protect the country from future pandemics.

CHANG: That is Michael Gordon of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much for joining us today.

GORDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.