The House unanimously approved a bill on Friday that would require the director of national intelligence (DNI) to declassify information related to the origins of COVID-19, sending the measure to President Biden’s desk for final approval.
The legislation, titled the COVID-19 Origin Act, passed in a 419-0 vote, just over a week after the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sponsored the measure.
The White House has not indicated whether Biden will sign the measure. Asked on Wednesday if the president had made a decision on the bill, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre referred reporters to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
The Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent last year, but it was not brought up in the House.
The renewed push on Capitol Hill to declassify intelligence pertaining to the origins of COVID-19 came shortly after The Wall Street Journal reported the Energy Department had determined, with “low confidence,” that coronavirus most likely came from a laboratory in China.
The determination, for which the Journal cited a classified intelligence report, was a change from the department’s previous undecided stance on COVID-19’s origins. The classified report, according to the newspaper, was recently sent to the White House and some congressional lawmakers.
The intelligence community, however, is fractured when it comes to the origins of COVID-19.
According to a report from the ODNI, four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council have assessed, with “low confidence,” that the initial COVID-19 infection “was most likely caused by natural exposure to an animal infected with it or a close progenitor virus,” while one intelligence community element determined with “moderate confidence” that the first human infection with COVID-19 likely came from a “laboratory-associated incident.”
Analysts at three intelligence agencies, however, have not been able to come to a conclusion on the origins of COVID-19.
More than 103 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the U.S. since the outbreak began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 1 million people have died.
The bill passed by the House on Friday would specifically direct the DNI to “declassify any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin” of COVID-19. That, according to the measure, includes “activities performed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology with or on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army” and “coronavirus research or other related activities performed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.”
Additionally, the measure would require that the DNI declassify information on the researchers working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who became sick in autumn 2019.
All that information would then be submitted to Congress in an unclassified report, with the DNI making any redactions necessary.
In a statement following the vote, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Americans “deserve answers” regarding COVID-19.
“The American people deserve answers to every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, including how this virus was created and specifically whether it was a natural occurrence or was the result of a lab-related event,” Turner said.
“COVID-19 ranks as one of this century’s most significant events. No community was spared, and every corner of the world was impacted. Everyone deserves to know what our Intelligence Community knows, and S.619 is a step in the right direction,” he added.
Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, underscored the importance of transparency during debate on Friday.
“I believe that the IC should make as much public as they can, consistent with the overriding need to protect sources and methods,” Himes said. “Transparency is a critical element of our democracy. The factual grounding of the IC’s analysis can be an antidote to the speculation, the rumor, and the theories that grow in the absence of good information.”
“I trust the intelligence community and administration will lean forward in making public as much new information as possible without endangering our ability to collect and analyze on these issues going forward,” he added.
— Updated 7:02 p.m.