August 3, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Biden needs to get China to cooperate with the pandemic’s origins investigation

August 3, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Biden needs to get China to cooperate with the pandemic’s origins investigation

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, acknowledged in mid-June that there was a “premature push” to dismiss the theory that COVID-19 initially spread from a Chinese lab. Tedros also urged Beijing to provide additional data that will aid in determining the origins of the pandemic. Belatedly, Tedros is pushing the WHO in the right direction, but the Biden administration has no strategy for compelling China’s cooperation on the origins investigation.

Tedros contributed to the current impasse when he gave the Chinese Communist Party a veto over the contents of the initial March COVID-19 origins report. Thus, it was not surprising when the report parroted Beijing’s propaganda.

That first report called the lab origin theory “extremely unlikely,” but Tedros, to his credit, immediately rejected that conclusion. He went further earlier this month, saying, “I have worked in [a] lab, and lab accidents happen. It’s common; I have seen it happening, and I have myself had errors, so it can happen.”

His comments mirror President Joe Biden’s late May statement calling the lab origin theory one of two “likely” scenarios along with natural transmission. Further review has led senior officials including national security adviser Jake Sullivan to believe the lab origin theory to be at least as plausible as the alternative. Supporters of both theories agree that China is obstructing a credible investigation of the pandemic’s origins.

Tedros even took a direct shot at Beijing, saying that we need “direct information on what the situation of these labs was before and at the start of the pandemic.” His comments convey the frustration with Beijing’s obstruction, including its continued denial that researchers at the Wuhan lab became ill in November 2019, and why the lab’s previously public database was taken offline in September 2019.

The WHO has completed the design for the second phase of its origins review, including audits of laboratories and research institutes in Wuhan. Tedros called on “China to be transparent, open and co-operate especially on the information, raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic.”

Despite serious flaws, the March 2021 origins report provides clues about the data that Beijing has not provided, including information related to more than 76,000 cases of individuals who had illnesses similar to COVID-19 in October to December 2019. There are also 200,000 blood donations collected annually in Wuhan, including samples from fall 2019, that could be tested for antibodies. This data could be used to determine whether the virus was circulating earlier than the first known cases in December 2019. The longer Beijing does not provide such key evidence, the more we should assume that China knows the information is derogatory in some way.

In that vein, China’s foreign minister dismissed Tedros’s requests for transparency, saying that the joint mission had “accessed substantive data and info and fully understood that some info could not be copied or taken out of China due to privacy issues.”

At a press conference last week, the deputy head of China’s National Health Commission called Tedros’s plans “impossible” for China. He also said that serious consideration of the lab origin in the review was a “disrespect for common sense and the arrogant attitude toward science revealed in this plan.” Prior to that press conference, a China Foreign Ministry spokesman requested an investigation of the military research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, noting that 5 million Chinese had signed a petition requesting the investigation. Directing this kind of baseless accusation at the United States has become a staple of Beijing’s efforts to distract from its own intransigence.

Beijing is ignoring requests from Biden, the G-7, and now Tedros to cooperate with the WHO’s origins review. Yet so far, the Biden administration has not articulated a plan for how it will elicit China’s cooperation.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met China’s foreign minister last month. Determining how a virus emerged in China and eventually killed more than 600,000 Americans was on the agenda, but it is unclear whether the Biden administration prioritized it among the other issues in the U.S.-China relationship. Sherman raised concerns about China’s noncooperation with a comprehensive origins review. But Beijing rejected those requests, so what’s the plan now?

Biden announced in late May that he ordered a 90-day intelligence community review of the pandemic’s origins that should be completed in late July or early August. But the review will not succeed unless Biden details his plans to compel China’s compliance with the WHO’s legitimate requests. Thus, Biden’s announcement was an attempt to kick the can down the road. Unfortunately for him, the voices calling for a complete origins review have only become louder, increasing the urgency for Biden to get tough with Beijing.

The debate over whether the virus occurred naturally or via a lab leak has obscured the reality that everyone agrees that China is obstructing the origins investigation. Biden has a responsibility to the people who lost their lives to COVID-19 to lead the world in forcing China to cooperate and prevent the next pandemic.

Anthony Ruggiero (@NatSecAnthony) 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 senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. FDD (@FDD) is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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Issues:

China COVID-19