The White House on Monday downplayed and would not confirm a report that the Department of Energy determined a lab leak was the most likely cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying there is no government consensus yet about what caused the outbreak.
“The intelligence community and the rest of the government is still looking at this,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesperson, said at a press briefing.
“There’s not been a definitive conclusion, so it’s difficult for me to say, nor should I feel like I should have to defend press reporting about a possible preliminary indication here,” he continued. “What the president wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re just not there yet.”
Reports circulated Sunday that the Energy Department had concluded based on new intelligence that a lab leak in China was the most likely cause of the pandemic, a shift from the previous position that it was not clear how the COVID-19 virus began to spread. The Energy Department study reportedly offered the conclusion with “low confidence” and the intelligence information that changed its conclusion is unknown.
But Kirby and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday would not weigh in on those reports or confirm them, instead insisting that the wider government was still looking into how the pandemic started.
“The president made trying to find the origins of COVID a priority when he came into office, and he’s got a whole government effort designed to do that,” Kirby said. “There is not a consensus in the U.S. government about how COVID started. There is not an intelligence community consensus.”
The U.S. intelligence community is split on the conclusion that the deadly virus leaked from a Chinese lab. Four other federal agencies believe that it likely jumped to humans from an animal host outside a lab. Those findings are also reportedly made with low confidence.
U.S. government officials have been pressing to learn more about how COVID-19 originated since the pandemic first began in early 2020, with Republicans in particular suggesting it may have jumped from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Wuhan, which is located about 500 miles west of Shanghai, is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.
Chinese authorities in 2021 refused to cooperate with a World Health Organization effort to study the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a lab. Government officials have been critical of China’s lack of cooperation in determining the origins of the virus, arguing Beijing has not been forthcoming since the pandemic began.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization, including roughly 1.1 million people in the United States.