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Blinken says Trump administration had concerns about COVID-19 probe

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies about the State Department budget before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON, June 8 (Reuters) - (This June 8 story, corrects with source clarifying that Blinken was referring to contractor’s report; corrects wording in paragraph 7 to “office” instead of “officer”)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cast doubt on Tuesday on a probe into the origins of COVID-19 launched at the State Department under the Trump administration and said the previous administration had had real concerns about its methodology.

Republican Senator Mike Braun asked Blinken at a Senate committee hearing about what he said was a Wall Street Journal report that the department had shut down the probe in January.

"I saw the report. I think it's on a number of levels, incorrect," Blinken replied, although it was not clear which report he and Braun were referring to.

Blinken said that to the best of his understanding, the Trump administration had asked a contractor to look into the origins of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with a particular focus on whether it was a result of a lab leak.

"That work was done, it was completed, it was briefed, to relevant people in the department. When we came in, we also were made aware of the findings," Blinken said.

"The Trump administration, it's my understanding, had real concerns about the methodology of that study, the quality of analysis, bending evidence to fit preconceived narrative. That was their concern. It was shared with us."

Blinken said the study was the work of one office and a few individuals and not the "whole of government effort" President Joe Biden has ordered, led by the intelligence community, to look into the origins of the virus. read more

Reuters reported earlier that Blinken had referred in his remarks to a Wall Street Journal report on Monday. In that, the Journal cited a classified report by a U.S. government national laboratory which it said had concluded that the hypothesis of a virus leak from a Chinese lab in Wuhan was plausible and deserved further investigation. read more

However, a source familiar with the situation, who did not want to be otherwise identified, said Blinken's remarks had been referring to the findings of the contractor, not that of the national laboratory.

Asked whether he supported declassifying information as to the origins of the virus, Blinken said "we should have as much transparency as we possibly can with whatever information we find," subject to the need to protect intelligence sources.

In announcing his 90-day probe, Biden said U.S. intelligence was considering two likely scenarios - that the virus resulted from a laboratory accident or that it emerged from human-animal contact - but had not come to a conclusion.

A still-classified U.S. intelligence report circulated during Trump’s administration alleged that three researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, U.S. government sources have said.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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