The US intelligence community is split over the possibility that Covid-19 emerged as a result of a laboratory accident, according to a senior official. 

Amanda Schoch, assistant director of national intelligence for strategic communications, said the US intelligence community “does not know exactly where, when, or how” the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, was initially transmitted.

But she said the US intelligence community, which comprises 18 organisations, had “coalesced around two likely scenarios”. 

One element of the intelligence community leaned towards a theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident, with only low or moderate confidence, she said.

Two other elements leaned towards assessments that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals — again with only low or moderate confidence.

“[T]he majority of elements within the [intelligence community] do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” she said.

The statement on Thursday does little to clear up a renewed debate over any alleged role played in launching the pandemic by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory in China that had been conducting research on bats that carry coronaviruses.

China has repeatedly denied that the virus emerged from the laboratory, but the US is among those pressing Beijing to offer greater co-operation with international efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic.

US president Joe Biden has asked US intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and report back to him within 90 days, amid renewed questions about the lab-leak hypothesis.

A team of scientists from the World Health Organization concluded in March that it was highly unlikely the disease had escaped from the Wuhan lab, though the WHO later admitted that its investigation, which was facilitated by Beijing, had left some questions unresolved.

The WHO said on Wednesday that more studies were needed in a range of areas, including the lab-leak hypothesis, and that it was still reviewing recommendations from its report.

Schoch said the US intelligence community continued to examine all available evidence, consider different perspectives and aggressively collect and analyse new information to identify the virus’s origins.

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