U.S. review of COVID's China origin unlikely to solve vexing questions

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Security personnel keep watch outside Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

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WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden is set to be briefed on the U.S. intelligence community's investigation into how COVID-19 started, with the report likely to disappoint in delivering clear answers about the deadly pandemic's origin in China.

Biden in May ordered aides to work to resolve disputes among intelligence agencies examining rival theories about how the novel coronavirus started, including a once-dismissed theory about the possibility of a laboratory accident in China, as well as that the virus originated naturally with animals, such as bats or birds.

A 90-day intelligence review the president ordered is due on Tuesday, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, with the release of unclassified portions likely to take a few days longer.

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Yet three U.S. government officials and a fourth person familiar with the scope of the investigation said they did not expect the review to lead to firm conclusions after China stymied earlier international efforts to gather key information on the ground.

Instead, one official said the report would likely point to additional lines of inquiry that officials could pursue, including demands of China that are likely to further ratchet up tensions with Beijing at a time when the country's ties with Washington are at their lowest point in decades.

"It's basically impossible to have a proper investigation if one of the main parties doesn't want to cooperate," said Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-author of "Aftershocks," a book about the pandemic with Biden's Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. "We need to proceed as if both hypotheses are true."

The report also comes as the U.S. intelligence agencies have come under pressure from within the administration and Congress over issues related to the handling of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban came faster than many U.S. intelligence, defense and diplomatic analysts predicted.

COVID-19 has killed 4.6 million people worldwide, according to a Reuters tally, but its precise origins remain shrouded in mystery.

The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 and U.S. agencies started looking into the origins shortly afterwards.

U.S. spy agencies initially strongly favored the explanation that the virus originated in nature.

A team led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal.

But their March report, which was written jointly with Chinese scientists and concluded that the lab theory was "extremely unlikely," did not satisfy Washington. read more

People familiar with intelligence reporting have said that there has been little corroboration over recent months that the virus had spread widely and naturally amongst wild animals.

Meanwhile, China has refused to give U.S. researchers the kind of access to the Wuhan lab and officials there that the U.S. believes it would need to definitively try to determine the virus' origins.

The WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said the group has not ruled out any hypothesis. The Geneva-based organization is set to impanel a new group to further examine the origins of the virus causing COVID-19.

For its part, China has ridiculed a theory that COVID-19 escaped from the state virology lab in Wuhan and pushed fringe theories including that the virus slipped out of a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 2019.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Mark Hosenball; additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Richard Pullin

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