WASHINGTON — For months, the notion that the coronavirus came from a Chinese laboratory studying infectious disease was dismissed as a conspiracy theory, a means for President Donald Trump and his supporters to deflect questions about his handling of the pandemic.
That changed this week, with the Biden administration coming to question the origins of the virus, even as the pandemic recedes across the United States. This shift doesn’t reflect new evidence suggesting the virus did escape from a Chinese laboratory; rather, the shift acknowledges that simply not enough is known about how the virus first infected humans to rule out that possibility.
First, on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called for the World Health Organization to launch a new investigation into how the virus originated. He hoped that such an inquiry would be granted “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” a clear reference to Beijing’s lack of transparency.
Even more significantly, Wednesday saw President Biden wade into the origin question. In a statement issued by the White House, Biden called on the intelligence community to prepare a report within the next 90 days that should include “their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”
Later in the day, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the announcement as a “continuing” of the president’s interest in how the pandemic began. It seems clear that that interest has grown, as has displeasure with China.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Jean-Pierre said. “We have to get a better sense of the origin of COVID-19.” She added that China needs to “cooperate more fully” than it has to this point with international investigators.
The World Health Organization published a report earlier this year that seemed to endorse the popular hypothesis that the virus first jumped to humans at an open-air market in Wuhan where wildlife was sold. But even the WHO’s own chief, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, conceded that investigators’ access to Chinese institutions was limited.
“The lab leak hypothesis is alive and well,” Stanford microbiologist David A. Relman told Yahoo News at the time. A growing number of scientists appear to be coming around to that view, a turnabout made easier by the fact that Trump is no longer tweeting daily about “the Chinese virus” or promulgating conspiracy theories from the White House briefing room.
The intelligence community began looking at the origins of the coronavirus as early as April of last year, as Yahoo News first reported. Analysts have focused in particular on whether the virus “escaped” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology because of poor biosecurity measures.
The White House described the intelligence community as broadly divided on whether the virus came from a market or a laboratory. The position of most intelligence agencies, Wednesday’s statement said, is that there is currently not “sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
There is no evidence whatsoever to support extreme claims like the one that holds that the virus was manufactured as a bioweapon. Less extreme claims, however, have gained traction.
Republicans have continued to press the Biden administration on whether the National Institutes of Health may have inadvertently funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that supercharged the coronavirus pathogen for purely experimental purposes.
Biden’s call for a new investigation comes as he also makes the case that his infrastructure plan is necessary for the United States to maintain economic supremacy and counter China’s rise.
Trump made China a primary target of his foreign policy, and many charged him with exacerbating anti-Asian sentiment throughout his last year in the White House. The rhetoric has changed under Biden, but animosity between Beijing and Washington remains. The president’s call for a new investigation into the origins of the coronavirus is unlikely to help ease tensions, especially since Chinese leaders are deeply resistant to being blamed for the pandemic.
Biden’s statement called on China to cooperate with a “full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.” Beijing is highly unlikely to accede to any such demands; WHO investigators were given only perfunctory access to staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Jean-Pierre, the White House deputy press secretary, was asked on Wednesday about what consequences China would face if it refused to cooperate. She did not answer the question.
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