President Joe Biden’s admission that CO-VID-19 may have escaped from a Chinese virology lab marks a seminal moment in public debate about the pandemic’s origins. Once ridicu-led as fantasy, the so-called “lab leak theory” now has support within the U.S. intelligence community, Biden revealed.
While the president deserves credit for sharing this information, he went to great lengths to avoid stating the plain truth that Beijing is stonewalling a real investigation of the virus’s origins. Instead of telling everyone what actions his administration will take to pry critical scientific data from Beijing’s hands, Biden is passing the buck by asking the intelligence community to spend another 90 days analyzing the issue.
The administration first hinted in April that the lab theory deserved to be taken seriously. Director of Nat-ional Intelligence Avril Ha-ines told the Senate Intel-ligence Committee that the intelligence community has “coalesced around two alt-ernative theories, these scenarios are it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, or it was a laboratory accident.” Her statement put an unexpected bipartisan sta-mp on the theory since her lang-uage mirrored that of an O-ffice of the Director of Na-tional Intelligence press re-lease that the Trump admi-nistration put out in April 2-020, yet few took seriously.
But Biden’s statement goes further, calling the two theories “likely scenarios” while cautioning that the intelligence community has not reached a “definitive conclusion.” While two agencies lean toward the zoonotic transmission scenario (i.e., from bat to human, possibly via an intermediate host), one leans toward the lab accident scenario. All three have a low to moderate confidence in their assessments. And a majority of the agencies say there is “not sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
Rather than saying that Beijing’s stonewalling is responsible for this lack of sufficient information, Biden followed his momentous statement about the pandemic’s origins by calling for another 90-day intelligence community review. While reticent about China, Biden tries to score political points by alleging that a “failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigations into the origin of COVID-19.” This contention ignores that China refused repeated offers of U.S. assistance, including sending experts from the United States to help contain the emerging virus.
The follow-up intelligence community assessment will not produce results while China continues to hide data and information from the earliest days of the pandemic. A thorough investigation requires access to medical records and blood samples collected in autumn 2019 to see if the virus was circulating earlier than December of that year, when the first infections were documented. That is precisely the kind of information that China is hiding from the World Health Organization and other international experts. Even the flawed WHO report on the pandemic’s origins called China out for holding this information back. As it turns out, China identified over 76,000 illnesses from October to December 2019 with symptoms similar to COVID-19. The Chinese only provided the WHO with information on 92 of the cases.
Just before Biden took office, the State Depart-ment revealed that several researchers within the Wuhan Institute of Viro-logy were sick in autumn 2019 with “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” However, Beijing has not agreed to an investigation of the activities in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab was researching coronaviruses, but we still do not know what work it was doing with the closest known relative of COVID-19, which the institute acquired after miners in southern China became ill in 2012 with symptoms eerily similar to COVID-19. A Wall Street Journal reporter recently biked to the mine and was subsequently detained by Chinese authorities who deleted a photo of the site. Not exactly the work of a country that wants to get to the bottom of what happened.
The Wuhan lab’s public database of 22,000 samples and virus sequences, including 15,000 from bats, has conveniently been offline since September 2019 because of alleged “cyberattacks.” China could easily provide the data offline if it wanted.
A lot of the questions China needs to answer are already clear, yet Biden asked the intelligence community to identify “areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China.” The original intelligence comm-unity report took two mo-nths. Does the world’s premier intelligence community need another three mo-nths just to prepare questions?
The Biden administration’s calls for a credible investigation of COVID-19’s origins have not led to action. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told last week’s WHO World Health Asse-mbly that international exp-erts should have “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.” China responded in the same meeting that “China’s part has been completed” and that the next phase of the investigation should lo-ok at whether the pandemic originated in other countries, a suggestion integral to Beijing’s disinformation campaign to promote the idea that the pandemic did not originate in China.
Now that the WHO meeting has finished, Biden or Becerra should publicly detail what the next steps are. China is not cooperating with the investigation; what is the Biden administration’s plan? Will it study the issue for 90 days while Beijing’s obstruction continues?
A better approach is for Biden to assemble a public-private investigation with like-minded countries that reviews available information and provides a judgment on the likely scenarios.
China’s cover-up cost the lives of nearly 600,000 people in America, and over 33 million have been infected. The country dese-rves concrete answers imm-ediately. It’s time for the Biden administration to sw-itch from rhetoric to action.
Anthony (@NatSecAn-thony) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense.